I nearly bit off my tongue trying to restrain myself with regard to the attacks on Sheriff Jim Hammond in recent weeks.
For over 25 years I have known Jim. I know him to be a fine Christian gentleman, a patriotic American, a genuinely compassionate leader. For many years, at his church, he taught Sunday School. On behalf of the U.S. Department of Justice, he taught constitutional rights and human rights to judicial officials and law enforcement in Eastern European countries that were transitioning to democracy.
I have witnessed him endure the tragedy of the sudden death of his daughter, who I used to work with, as well as deaths of law enforcement officers slain in the line of duty. I can personally testify to the fact that he doesn’t have a single racist bone in his body; he harbors no discrimination against any minority (religious, sexual, skin color, political, etc.) I stood beside him as he sought votes in the projects, the dens of the Tea Party, and a broad spectrum of poor, middle class, and high income neighborhoods throughout this community.
Jim is not responsible for the fact that during his tenure, over 12,000 units of public housing and low income housing have been torn down to make way for school expansions, industrial development, and luxury condos.
There is also strict enforcement of building codes, targeting the poor and low income landlords who rent to them, often pressuring those landlords to sell out to out-of-state real estate investment trusts who often double rents in low income communities. Yet these realities have led to exponential increases in homelessness in this county of hundreds of percent during Jim’s administration, increasing rates of petty crime necessary for them to survive, and, of course, filling the jails.
The fact that state and county and city elected officials have criminalized homelessness, making it a felony for the homeless to exist/camp on over 99 percent of public lands, and a misdemeanor to camp without authorization on most private property, has filled our jails to capacity. The reality is that the cost of housing homeless in shelters is around $15,000 a year, while it costs over $75,000 a year to house them in jails and prisons. That is a problem Jim inherited from elected officials who pander to middle class voters tired of panhandling mothers and fathers trying to feed and shelter their babies instead of addressing the underlying problems of inadequate wage structures, fair wages, living wages, and deficient educational and health systems to address the needs of the destitute.
Neither is Jim responsible for the fact that Southeastern Tennessee’s dozen counties have only three small mental health hospitals. They are swamped with addiction and seriously injured psychological and psychiatric patients, and the very few outpatient clinics here cannot handle the hoards of uninsured “walking psychologically wounded” citizens. Tennessee legislators have refused for decades to expand Medicaid or require insurance companies in this state to put psychological and psychiatric treatment on an equal footing with physical medical conditions. Those untreated mental patients end up taking up expensive cell space in Silverdale that could be used to house actual criminals.
Jim is not responsible for the fact that the County Commission has failed on numerous occasions to fund the number of deputies he needs to fill open school resource officer, road deputy slots, and the dozens of vacancies in staffing at Silverdale. While the commission has recently increased pay for deputies modestly, the fact is that a well-educated, well-trained deputy could earn tens of thousands of dollars more working elsewhere. The fact that Hamilton County pay is so low guarantees that a certain percentage of deputies are not fit to work in places like jails, filled with vulnerable citizens, so we are stuck with them. Qualified, competent deputies who live elsewhere refuse to move here to fill those job openings.
Many of the inmates at Silverdale are functionally illiterate. Some of them turned to crime, in part, because they are unemployable. The long term failure of Hamilton County elected officials to pay teachers sufficiently to hire the brightest and best graduates of universities causes many of them to seek jobs elsewhere where pay scales are higher. None of this is Jim’s fault, yet he inherits the problem of jails filled with inmates who are often unable to read the jail rules and procedures. These inmates are often taken advantage of by their cellmates, many of whom are hardened criminals and gang bangers. Misdemeanor and traffic offenders and accused who cannot afford bail ought not to be held in cell blocks with hardened criminals, but when there are as many as three dozen inmates in holding cells designed for 10, what is Jim to do? He does not vote on or pass budgets, or set bonds, yet he is forced to deal with the results of uninformed decisions by other elected officials.
Jim is a believer and practitioner of human rights, civil rights, constitutional rights, statutory rights, and regulatory rights of Hamilton County citizens, including inmates at Silverdale. But in the absence of adequate funding to ensure safe conditions inside the poorly designed existing structures, his deputies are simply unable to ensure the safety of each inmate, or even provide for their own safety during minor incidents. How can you protect a vulnerable inmate from a gang when you cannot see into cellblocks where the nefarious activities take place? How can an officer respond to a beating or a fight when his backup is in another building minutes away?
Jim does not need my defense. He has never shied away from answering detractors himself. He does not hide behind his secretary or receptionist or public relations staff. He faces his critics and defends his positions and actions. He is a straight shooter, and sometimes says things that offend criminals, or their lawyers, or issue-oriented activists. He does not pander to preachers or voters. He tells it like it is.
I myself belong to a different political party, and a different religion than Jim. We disagree on some issues, but share a common respect for our Constitution, our country, our county, and its citizens, both rich and poor. I am a liberal activist and advocate for the homeless, the mentally ill, and for felons released to society without the necessary assistance in transitioning. I am a believer in alternatives to sentencing non-violent offenders to prison, and I believe that the Second Amendment imposes responsibilities on gun owners and society that ought to include safety training, and perhaps even insurance or bonds to cover victims of gun violence.
I believe that if Jim were given authority to contract out mental patient transport and civil process service, he could put more trained deputies to work on the streets and in Silverdale to fill vacancies. But Jim has had to take the cards he was dealt here in Hamilton County by the commission, and I believe I am among the majority of Hamilton County citizens, both liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican, rich and poor, who agree that Sheriff Jim Hammond has led the men and women under his command admirably, earned their respect, and kept the citizens of our county safe. I, for one, thank Jim Hammond for his long tenure of service to the residents of our county as sheriff.
In a few months, Jim will pass the responsibilities of his office on to his Chief Deputy, Austin Garrett. Although I do not know Austin as well as Jim, I am familiar with the excellent work he did with the Chattanooga Police Department as Commander of Special Operations. He is neither racist or anti-semitic. I know that Sheriff Hammond personally recruited and mentored Austin to continue his policies and retain his great staff of deputies. I know that he has confidence that Austin will maintain the hard-earned Law Enforcement Accreditation that Jim accomplished during his administration, and that Austin will oversee the completion of construction of a new Silverdale facility that will more adequately ensure the safety of correctional officers, inmates, and the public.
The fact that not a single deputy or area law enforcement official has put himself forward to oppose Austin Garrett indicates to me that he has the unanimous support of area law enforcement officers and even the “behind the scenes mountain folk” who subsidize opponents from time to time of those elected officials who are not respected by them.
I have every confidence that Austin will lead our county over the next four or more years into a future that includes even better relations with the County Commission and other departments such as Courts Community Service and Probation and Parole, as well as other law enforcement agencies such as CPD, TBI and FBI.
I have no doubt that Sheriff-elect Garrett will work closely with Chattanooga’s new Police Chief, Celeste Murphy, to eliminate duplication of services, enter into and maintain mutual aid response agreements, centralized purchasing and training whenever possible, and to achieve an economy of scale and force multiplication that will bring our county into the future, resulting in great savings to taxpayers, just as the city and county have cooperated with the Emergency Operations Center and 911 Center facilities, equipment, and staffing.
I hope and pray that Sheriff Jim Hammond will hang around our community to provide his excellent advice and leadership to Chief Murphy and incoming Sheriff Garrett, whether as a consultant or simply as an experienced interested taxpayer and citizen. Hamilton County owes an enormous debt of gratitude to Sheriff Hammond for the fantastic leadership he brought to this community, restoring public trust to an office that had suffered great injury to its reputation. Let us never forget that FBI agent Jim Melia arrested a former Hamilton County Sheriff for drug and extortion offenses, a sheriff who embarrassed the county greatly, who pled guilty to each of two dozen serious felonies with which he was charged, and who served time in prison. It was Sheriff Jim Hammond who restored the confidence of the public in our law enforcement leadership. Never forget that.
We, as citizens, would be well advised to help our county transition to the incoming administration of Austin Garrett in a productive and beneficial way, rather than focusing unfair criticism on Jim Hammond for having to deal with the obvious problems and issues for which he has or had no control.
His detractors ought to be focusing instead on electing state and county officials who offer viable solutions to problems of our community involving mental illness and homelessnes and criminals instead of making matters worse by passing laws that fail to address the true underlying issues.
Hamilton County, Tennessee Citizen of 32 years