On January 22nd, the Chattanooga Times Free Press (CTFP) published an article on the meeting of the Chattanooga City Council to discuss the possible mishandling of a police brutality case that took place in March of 2018, but is only now being investigated. The Council was critical of the Chattanooga Police Department’s slow pace on the investigation, some calling for the immediate termination of the officer in question, Benjamin Piazza.
The CTFP explains that the incident in question happened on March 18th, 2018. According to Piazza, Fredrico Wolfe was stopped for speeding around 3:30 a.m. and when stopped, Piazza says he observed the man throw three bags out of his passenger side window and then engaged with the driver after he began resisting arrest.
A different story seems to be told in the bodycam video recently obtained by Wolfe’s lawyer, where a compliant Wolfe is seen being ordered out of his car at gunpoint by Piazza and then shoved against the car. The video is intensely violent, with Wolfe being cursed at and then punched 10 times by the officer.
Councilwoman Demetrus Coonrod told CTFP, “By not firing [Piazza] immediately, we're condoning that behavior. When things like this happen, it feels like it's slapping me in the face, and we as a council have got to do something.”
A central question in the Council discussion was of how long it took the department to begin an investigation of Piazza. The delay in investigation is especially interesting given the CTFP article written in December of 2018 by Rosana Hughes.
The article mainly goes into detail on what Chief Roddy has been working towards in his first year on the job, including changing some uniform policies, keeping chiefs, captains, and lieutenants accountable to 30 day goals, and making sure every officer is trained in A.C.E.s, or adverse childhood experiences, which help officers understand the effect of trauma on children. However, towards the end of the article, Hughes highlights the lack of trust that communities have for the police department.
The incident with Piazza is not the first breach of trust with the Chattanooga Police Department. The year of 2018 gave rise to many of these types of questionable incidents. CTFP reported that in February, Lieutenant Craig Joel drove his city car drunk and then in December of the same year, Hamilton County sheriffs admitted that they gave Joel special treatment because of his position, including not being given a blood alcohol test or even having his name written in the incident report. In June, it was announced that Officer Desmond Logan was under investigation for at least two accusations of rape. In November, Officer Benjamin Dessalines was arrested for felony kidnapping and felony sexual battery after he forced a woman to return to his apartment with him after she was caught shoplifting at a Food City grocery store.
His case was heard on February 4th, 2019 by Judge Statom and when the judge found evidence of a felony, was bound over from the associate division to the circuit court. (Hamilton County Records) Sergeant Peter Turk resigned from the department in December after being accused of soliciting prostitutes and is still under investigation.
Chief David Roddy told CTFP in regards to Dessalines, “There are hundreds of Chattanooga Police Officers who do great work every day to uphold the mission of the Chattanooga Police Department and build trust with community members. Investigations into conduct of this magnitude are the result of choices and actions of a few and do not represent the values of the department and the many officers who serve the Chattanooga community.” Roddy, in another interview, asked the community of Chattanooga to have patience and maintain trust in the police department.
The Chattanooga City Council may not be in the mood for patience. In the same meeting that discussed the video published by the CTFP, Councilman Jerry Mitchell said that “action against excessive force is long overdue.” He continued, “I hope we all approach this so we end up not just talking about something, because I've had enough. If the council needs to force change, we need to not be afraid of that. Although most police officers are ‘outstanding individuals,’” he said, “we have a history of police bullying in this town — I grew up with it and don't blame anyone who thinks so. We need to show real leadership and say we've had enough.”
In the case of the video of Piazza beating Fredrico Wolfe, the investigation is still underway. Mr. Wolfe has been cleared of all charges by the Hamilton County District Attorney General Neal Pinkston, including driving on roadways laned for traffic, tampering or fabricating evidence, speeding, driving under the influence, offending the implied consent law, resisting arrest or obstruction of legal process, possessing drugs for the purpose of resale, and possession of a controlled substance. (Hamilton County Records) In fact, the office of the district attorney has announced that any case relying only on the testimony of Piazza will be dismissed. Piazza’s most recent arrests include DUIs, evading arrest, trespassing, and domestic assault (Hamilton County Records). If Piazza is disciplined, he can appeal to an administrative law judge. The hardest punishment that can be pursued by the police department is the decertification of Piazza, which would make him unable to work as a police officer in Tennessee (CTFP).