The Sheriff's Office defended the use of tear gas during a tense standoff with protestors outside the historic Hamilton County Courthouse on Sunday night.
The incident came after acts of vandalism on the property, it was stated.
Officials said, "Once the vandals were placed in custody, several protestors attempted to climb the stairs to the balcony once again where deputies armed with less lethal beanbag weapons were positioned as they attempted to secure the area.
Protestors ignored our personnel’s commands and continued to verbally assault officers and advance in a threatening posture.
"As more law enforcement personnel arrived to assist deputies, another altercation took place when protestors attempted to grab a deputy and pull him into the crowd. Deputies immediately deployed CS gas for the protection of the deputy as well as the property to disperse unruly protestors. As this was a fast evolving incident with aggressive behavior, a warning of CS gas deployment was neither warranted or an option."
Sheriff Jim Hammond said, “For the last two nights, the HCSO has partnered with local law enforcement agencies to support and defend our citizens right to peaceably assemble and exercise their 1st amendment right. As a nation, free speech and the right to peaceably assemble it is one of our most fundamental rights. However, we will not tolerate unruly protestors vandalizing any property. Physical assaults upon my deputies will not stand and we will respond to these types of threats accordingly. The death of George Floyd was tragic and those involved in the incident will be held accountable and will have to answer for their actions in a court of law. Those who wish to protest the events that occurred in Minneapolis can do peacefully and will be supported by your sheriff’s office.
"Let me be clear, assaulting any person, including our local law enforcement, vandalizing buildings, destroying private property, and burning vehicles is not honoring Mr. Floyd or his death. I implore those who wish to protest to do so in a respectful, peaceful manner. I assure you your Sheriff’s Office will support your right to protest, but not if you endanger members of our community, threaten or assault members of law enforcement, or vandalize our buildings or personal property.”
Sheriff Hammond also said concerning a statement by city police that they got no warning that tear gas was being used, “Well you usually don’t warn people when you have to take action against illegal behavior and criminal activity. I won’t speak to the specifics of what the protocol is because that’s a law enforcement issue. What I can say is that we did was to stop the vandalism and criminal activity that was beginning to happen.”
Sheriff Hammond said there was a good level of communication between the various departments that had to work together Sunday night.
“In the day and age we live in now, it’s a lot simpler than it used to be with the cell phones and communication systems and police radio,” said the sheriff. “We did well between coordinated efforts with the agencies.”
The sheriff believes the majority of protesters were participating in order to have social media material, or because they were curious. He said “I think it was a very small number who wanted to become radicalized or create vandalism and criminal behavior.”
“That’s why we took the position of you have the right to protest peacefully. But you do not have the right to protest and create damage and criminal activity.”
Sheriff Hammond said the department had no control over whether or not the National Guard is deployed. He said HCSO was tasked with protecting county property, which is the jail, the old courthouse, and the City/County Courts Building.
“In this particular case, the governor had a real thorny issue because this was going on in multiple places in Tennessee,” said Sheriff Hammond. “So he made the decision to have the National Guard on standby, and it was Highway Patrol that requested there be some available in case things went south.”
There was not a curfew last night, and that was always a possibility if things got more out of hand. But that was call from the governor or the mayor, the sheriff said.
Sheriff Hammond said multiple times that he supports people’s ability to protest peacefully.
“This country was founded upon the ability for people to peacefully protest, and we have no problem with that. When you start destroying property, especially historical property that cannot be replaced, that’s where I have to draw the line.”
The sheriff said there is a vast collection of footage the department can look through from Sunday night, which includes drone footage. He said several arrests were or have already been made. He said that where people can be identified as having participated in vandalism, they will face prosecution.