published Wednesday, February 15th, 2012

Hamilton County leads state in jailer arrest rate

ACROSS THE STATE

In Tennessee's four largest counties, corrections officers at almost every sheriff's office were arrested at some point between January 2011 through February 2012. Knox County Sheriff's Office reported no jailers have been arrested in recent years. Three corrections officers have been charged in the last 10 years, Knox County spokesman Martha Dooley said.

Nashville — Davidson County Sheriff's Office. Ten out of 368 corrections officers were arrested.

Chattanooga — Hamilton County Sheriff's Office. Six out of about 157 corrections officers were arrested.

Memphis — Shelby County Sheriff's Office. Twelve out of 761 corrections officers were arrested.

Source: County sheriff's offices

The Hamilton County Jail has the highest percentage of corrections officers arrested in the past year out of the state's four largest metro areas.

From the beginning of 2011 to date, six corrections officers out of about 157 jail employees at the local jail have been arrested. In 2010, only one corrections officer was arrested.

While more jail employees in Nashville and Memphis were arrested in the same time period -- 10 in Nashville and 12 in Memphis -- those cities have much larger staffs, leading to a lower percentage of employees who violated the law.

Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond said the higher numbers at his jail are not a poor reflection on the department's hiring procedures and, in fact, show that they're doing their job well.

"I don't think you can read into the number that we're doing more or less enforcement. I think it is what it is with that many employees," Hammond said. "You have people who test the system and make bad decisions. The fact that we catch people doing this shows we're doing due diligence."

Despite the spate of corrections officers being arrested in the past year, "by and large the majority of officers we have working down there are hardworking employees and do a good job," Hammond said.

There are no national statistics on law enforcement officers who are arrested, according to a study written by Philip Stinson, professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. His study looks at data collected from court records and newspaper articles from across the country from 2005 to 2007.

So what does it say about a department with a number of arrests involving law enforcement officers?

"It's a complicated issue. We ask the same question," said Stinson, a former police officer. "Maybe you have a tough police chief who's toeing the line and holding people accountable.

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"Policing is violent, and violent behavior by police officers is generally tolerated, apparently even their violent criminal behavior," he said.

Last year, three Chattanooga Police Department officers out of about 460 were arrested on charges including domestic assault and assault. All three kept their jobs. Of those charged, one had his case dismissed and two were given judicial diversion, a program for first-time offenders that allows them to have their record expunged if they meet certain conditions.

Four of the six Hamilton County jailers still have charges pending. One had her case dismissed and another was given judicial diversion. To date, none of the cases have resulted in termination.

That falls in line with Stinson's national research, which shows that most officers are suspended, not fired.

"I assumed if you get arrested you lose your job. That's just not the case," he said.

In Hamilton County, the latest jailer arrests took place in December, when two jailers were arrested on marijuana possession stemming from off-duty incidents. Historically, marijuana has been the drug of choice, although Stinson's study shows more officers are arrested for cocaine use.

As a result of the most recent investigation, two other Hamilton County jailers were placed on leave. Corrections Officer Alicia Bull, who had no charges filed, was given a 30-day suspension and a year of probation in which she must undergo random drug testing.

"There were no independent witnesses. She told the truth to investigators for an incident over year old. ... I think there was genuine remorse," Hammond said.

The other corrections officer still has a hearing before a board for his case.

Background checks, psychological tests and physical ability tests are standard requisites for law enforcement officers.

Previously, law enforcement agencies were allowed to hire police officers who had prior arrests for assault, DUI or narcotics. Cpl. Jerry Melbert, one of the local jailers arrested last year on a sexual battery charge, has an assault conviction in Alabama and was ordered to undergo anger management. He was hired at the Hamilton County Jail by a previous sheriff's administration.

State law changed in 2006, forbidding law enforcement from hiring anyone with a record with charges such as assault, DUI or narcotics, said Don Gorman, director of administration for the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office.

Officers who are arrested for such charges are placed on paid leave until their first court appearance. If the case is not resolved immediately, they are placed on leave without pay until they are convicted or exonerated.

Stinson recently received a grant from the National Institute of Justice to begin a new study in which he and other researchers will examine arrest records of both off-duty and on-duty law enforcement officers. He said he hopes the expanded study will not only show the extent of law enforcement crime but also help agencies formulate policies to confront the issues surrounding such misconduct.

It also could help departments identify officers who are at risk for misconduct, he said.

"We're hoping that by learning more about this we can reduce the problems of police officers committing crimes," he said. "We're hoping something positive comes out of our research."

JAILER ARRESTS

Feb. 23: Deputy Lori Pickett is arrested on a domestic assault charge after she reportedly struck her husband when confronting him whttp://www.timesfreepress.com/admin/news/story/201071/#ith allegations of infidelity. Her case was dismissed for good behavior.

Aug. 4: Cpl. Arnetta Jones-Eady, 51, is charged with aggravated assault along with her two daughters after being accused of beating her grandson's mother. The charges against Jones-Eady and her daughters were later dismissed after cellphone footage surfaced and showed no proof that the alleged victim was beaten.

July 26: Cpl. Jerry Melbert, 42, is charged with sexual battery and assault after he reportedly places his finger down a woman's cleavage on the dance floor at The Palms nightclub. His next court date is set for Thursday before Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Don Poole. Melbert has a previous assault arrest in Alabama and twice has been ordered to undergo anger management, according to his personnel file.

An investigation is launched into criminal activity involving two jailers, 25-year-old Phillip Friar and 51-year-old Sandra Justice Brown. Both are charged with possession of marijuana. Two other jail employees are placed on leave pending the outcome of an internal investigation.

Brown was previously suspended for 40 hours after she planned to have a physical relationship with a jail inmate once he was transferred to a state prison. Her next court date is set for Friday before Criminal Court Judge Rebecca Stern.

Friar, who lives in Bradley County, was arrested by the Bradley County Sheriff's Office. His next court date is scheduled for Feb. 28 before Bradley Sessions Court Judge Sheridan Randolph.

As of Tuesday evening, sheriff's office officials had not responded to requests for information on any previous arrests or internal affairs investigations against Brown or Friar.

Dec. 29: Corrections Officer Robert Medford, 64, is charged with aggravated assault, official oppression and misdemeanor child abuse after he allegedly used an unauthorized holding technique on Markell Mitchell, 16, who is charged in the killing of a Red Bank man. Medford became upset after Mitchell sprayed a cleaning liquid on him.

Medford's next court date is set for today before Criminal Court Judge Don Poole.

As of Tuesday evening, sheriff's office officials had not responded to requests for information on any previous arrests or internal affairs investigations against Medford

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