City Councilwoman Demetrus Coonrod said Tuesday she believes the new police oversight committee "will hopefully create a level of accountability for law enforcement in Chattanooga." However, she said she is disappointed that the board does not have the power to discipline officers it finds committed infractions.
She said, "I think in Chattanooga, it’s another process that’s going to hold police accountable. It’s like they’ve got that reminder over their shoulder that’s like, ‘If I do something wrong, then this oversight board is going to hold me accountable.’”
“We have a police chief, Chief Roddy, who most definitely wants us to do the right thing, so he’s on board with it. And my thing is, with this oversight board, it gives them protection. So if any other mayor comes in or another council comes in, it’s already in our ordinance and it’s chartered to go on. Unless, of course, the next council comes in and doesn’t vote on it.”
She said, “This is the system that’s in place. If I have a problem with the police, something I feel like didn’t get handled correctly, I’d report that. I can go to internal affairs, and it enters the investigation process. Once it goes in front of the oversight board, they’ll review it and say ‘It needs to be re-investigated or we’re going to make sure the sanction is correctly applied to what’s happening.’”
However, she said the committee "lacks any sort of ability to enforce punishments to misbehaving officers or law enforcement found to be guilty of wrongdoing. The reason for this has to do with laws at the state level prohibiting this sort of power, even though a city like Nashville has an oversight committee with the ability to enforce punishment.
“There’s no actual teeth in it, because the state of Tennessee, you know, came and said we can’t do that. Even though Nashville won in the balloting process in that and has the power to prosecute and things like that in there. The state needs to look at changing their laws so that cities and municipalities can do what’s best for their communities. We should be able to govern our things, and we should be able to do those things without the state trying to mandate what we can and can’t do.”
While the oversight committee would not concern itself with the matters of the Sheriff’s Department, Ms. Coonrod said she found the conduct of certain deputies to be concerning. She also levied criticism at District Attorney Neal Pinkston for his "lack of action."
She said, “We have deputies now that have been investigated, that are still employed or are on a leave of absence with pay, and nothing has been done. TBI has done an investigation, and the district attorney refuses to prosecute or move forward with those things. So that’s the other issue. We need to make sure that the people who wear that badge are treating our citizens well, and are there to protect and serve, and not to abuse their authority.”
The police controversy in nearby Collegedale has also been an impetus to create and empower a police oversight committee. She said, “It gives me the sense of urgency, the feeling of 'We must get this done,' and that we must educate our constituents so that they know what it means when they vote on this referendum. There’s a sense of urgency when it comes to going to the state, and seeing what laws need to be changed and showing people why this oversight board needs more teeth in it.”
She noted the board has and will face resistance from some constituents. She called for promoting the board on a local level, but also on higher levels of government.
“It’s a conservative state. They say they’re progressive and they want to move forward on things. But things that are going to help people and be beneficial and build a relationship between people and the police, they’re not really ready to move forward in that direction. It’s clearly a problem, right? We need to build relationships, not only on the local level with our elected officials, but we also need to champion that cause at the state. And we should champion that same cause when we meet with our senators and Congresspeople and beyond, because that’s how we effectively create change.”
She denied the oversight board will limit officers’ ability to do their job effectively. She said if there are any “bad apples” affected, then the oversight board would hopefully begin the process of permanently removing them from the police force.
Councilwoman Coonrod said, “I don’t think it would limit them from doing their job because they’re not afraid of doing it now. If they’re doing everything correctly, then they wouldn’t be investigated or at fault for something. So if we have those bad apples, then they need to be out of the force and no longer working for our police department. They need to lose all credentials, and not be able to wear a badge in another city or another state. If you’re going to abuse your authority or abuse your position or wrongfully violate policies, then we don’t need those bad apples on the force.”
Despite coming up with the idea of the oversight board, Ms. Coonrod was resolute in her stance that she is not anti-police.
“A lot of people say that 'Oh, she’s anti-police.' But I’m far from anti-police. I believe in treating people fairly, and it wouldn’t matter if it was a regular citizen, police officer, EMT, fire department, or whoever. It’s about respect and respecting boundaries.”
Although not directly related to the police oversight board, Ms. Coonrod spoke of the importance of relationships between citizens and the police. And, more specifically, how stronger relationships between police and the black community in Chattanooga can help solve problems in the Scenic City.
“In our homes, we’re told that the police are bad. But if we get more people out of that mindset, and get them to serve as police officers, both male and female, then that’s how you disrupt that system. When you’ve got people who look like you working in your neighborhoods, you build that relationship with the community,” she said.