published Friday, September 7th, 2012

David Cook: Posse member seeks spirit of the law

After filling out an application, passing a background check, smiling for the official photograph (such a rookie move: I should have scowled), I finally was granted membership into the Hamilton County Posse.

My official posse card arrived in the mail earlier this summer. I carry it in my wallet, next to my library card. Looks great, except for one thing.

My posse card identifies me as Dick.

Dick Cook, not David Cook. (Talk about a Freudian slip.)

Man, there goes my entire street cred, which was already about as thin as Kate Moss. Regardless -- Dick, David or Dudley-Do-Right — I now join more than 70 other county citizens in an organization given power by an 1858 Tennessee law to stop "affrays, riots, routs, unlawful assemblies, insurrections or other breaches of peace."

I volunteer to handle all affrays and routs.

The county posse was reinstituted under Sheriff Jim Hammond, which means something about this man.

On Thursday, the sheriff, wearing a white shirt, red tie and houndstooth blazer, came to the Times Free Press newsroom to meet with editors, editorial writers, reporters and posse-columnists. Coming to the newspaper was his idea. That means something, too.

The recent narrative for our county sheriff has been less than favorable.

He's been accused of favoritism and nepotism, hiring his son as webmaster, making calls on behalf of a former employee who'd been arrested, commissioning special deputies and posses.

He's had budget issues: Spending more than he's budgeted and, most recently, not providing the full amount of school resource officers the County Commission approved for him to use in schools.

"My budget is woefully underfunded," he said Thursday.

In each case, Hammond defended himself. He's given a budget to manage (how he does so is up to him, he said) and rising food and gas prices, a shortage of federal prisoners (paid for with extra federal dollars to the sheriff's office) and plenty of overtime pay make him reroute funding from one area to another, he said.

I'd wage that happens in budgets all across the county. But not all budgets are in the hands of democratically elected leaders either.

Like a fly on a horse, something else is nagging at me about this: Why does one of the most needed programs in the county — a well-trained SRO officer in all schools — have to suffer?

He spoke about the starving budget — and I can't help but think it would increase if he managed it a bit better -- but also about his own Sheriff's Foundation, which seeks to raise more than $1 million to increase three things in law enforcement: "Ethics, character building and leadership," he said.

I asked him about Lonnie Hood, the former deputy who had served time for a felony offense. In December 2011, Hood was arrested for disorderly conduct and Hammond made calls to the jail and magistrate on his behalf.

"I'd do it as much for a stranger as for Lonnie Hood as for you if you called me," he said.

Near the end of the editorial board meeting Thursday, he told a hypothetical story: A man is caught speeding in the middle of the night down a long and deserted road. No alcohol, no recklessness or crime beyond speeding. Hammond said he'd rather an officer warn the man, telling him to slow down, instead of writing a ticket.

"I'd rather follow the spirit of the law," he said.

I like that. To me, that is the meaning of Hammond. Following the spirit, he sometimes crosses a line to do what he thinks is right. But it's a dangerous slope if you're not always right but never in doubt. Truly believing something is right doesn't make it right.

And if he can find ways to follow both the spirit — and letter — of the law, his budget problems would certainly decrease, which means more SROs and fewer routs.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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jesse said...

Now that you can stop affrays,routs and breaches of the peace you can start w/the comments section on Clay Bennett's cartoons!!

By the time you get that in order you will be ready to turn in your posse card!!LOL

BTW: if being in the posse allows you to ride along in a patrol car you might want to do that some on evening or night shift! It will give you a new insight into exactly what is going on and what the guys on duty have to deal with every day!

September 8, 2012 at 10:46 a.m.

Mr Cook will you do a piece on why the chief thinks we should by pass honest citizens, who obey the law, and give 100 jobs to hard core criminals?

"There's no way in the world we can't take 100 hard core criminals who run most of the crime we have in this city. Not 1,200. Not 1,300. It's about 100 people. There's no way this city can't give those 100 people a job," Dodd said.

This is from the chief of police? Am I missing something here? What about JAIL if there are only 100 hard core criminals as he is alluding to. Just the words "give them" fill in the blank makes me angry. This type of attitude, by the Chief of police no less, in insulting to every taxpayer who pays his salary. And it is insulting to the officers who patrol these streets. If you want to give them something how about a bus ticket to Atlanta... one way.

September 8, 2012 at 2:35 p.m.
jesse said...

D.J.! The chief of police is the mouthpiece of our mayor!His autonomy is non existent!He toes the mayors line! The sheriff on the other hand is a power unto his self and has some freedom of choice! The mayors reality is the Chiefs reality!period! AND in Chattanooga if you work for the city you DON'T buck the mayors take on things if you want to keep your job! The sheriff on the other hand get to create his own version of whats REAL!

September 8, 2012 at 4:53 p.m.
Leaf said...

Power corrupts. Especially in Chattanooga, where there are few checks or balances. And especially for people who believe they have a right to interpret the law that applies to them as Hammond appears to.

September 10, 2012 at 4:12 p.m.
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