Polarization has become the norm in Tennessee, especially when it comes to gun violence.
The statewide focus last week was the special session on public safety and mental health that Republican Gov. Bill Lee called in the wake of the March 27 mass shooting at a Christian private school in Nashville. The shooter killed three children and three adults.
In Chattanooga, the Aug. 11 police shooting that killed a 34-year-old black man has become a topic of conversation in communities across the county.
Everyone has their point of view.
In the Monday Times Free newspaper a report, Hamilton County District Attorney Coty Wamp filed a direct defense of the police involved in the shooting and killing of Roger Heard Jr. It dismissed criticism from some members of the community about what they saw as an aggressive use of force by police officers and concern that Heard may not have been recognized by police.
In an interview on Wednesday, the attorney general doubled down on her statements.
“A violent criminal shoots cops, I’m not worried about his family,” Wamp said. “I’m going to tell you which family I’m worried about,[Criminal Police Department Detective]Seltin Patterson’s, because I don’t know if he’ll ever be able to work in law enforcement again. He has kids no one talks about. He has a family. He has a mother.”
Wamp does not mince words. Nor should she. Many of her constituents in Hamilton County back her words.
Perhaps this polarized climate indicates that your constituents are only people who believe like you. Actually, this is not the case.
Wamp surely knows she’s the attorney general for the entire county, not just the voters who put her in office in August 2022.
Consider also the court of public opinion, opinions shaped by personal experiences, observations, and cultural influences.
With each polarizing incident, such as the shooting of Heard Jr., some opinions harden, and trust between law enforcement and minority communities in particular becomes harder to come by.
Wamp’s language was frustrating. But for her, being vocal is important.
“My two options are to speak out about my position on this matter or to remain silent,” she said. “It is not appropriate for me to remain silent after society demands answers.
“Legally, the law supports Officer Patterson, and therefore I support him as well.”
Wamp is true. Law is law. Heard, a convicted felon, shot officers and had the right under the Chattanooga Police Department’s Use-of-Force Policy to shoot when force was used against “an officer and/or other person, posing an immediate threat of serious bodily injury or loss of life.” ” This comes from the 2020 version of CPD’s Use of Force Policy.
Building trust in the midst of conflict and mistrust
Speaking up and feeling heard is important to others, especially those who feel marginalized.
It’s no news that the black community in Chattanooga has had a tumultuous relationship with local law enforcement for years.
According to data from Concerned Citizens for Justice, from the late 1970s to date, there have been 78 fatalities from police shootings. Those deaths leave a mark on society, and while some of the names of those involved may fade, the pain reverberates. This pain motivates people to demand change, sometimes with loud and harsh language.
“Government officials will not hold the police to account, so the people of Chattanooga should have an independent APC oversight board with the power to investigate crimes committed against our people,” the organization said in a statement on Wednesday. “The Criminal Procedure Code does not make our communities safer; they continue to terrorize, torture and kill our people with impunity, as the Chattanooga police have done for decades.”
Let’s not be naive: There will be another shooting that will demand our attention and call for action. Some may have their X (Twitter) fingers ready, others may not yell. Some will protest. Others will stay home and rage. Those on the left will tweet, same for the right.
We are witnessing the horror of gun violence and its after effects. The Covenant school shooting galvanized parents who never expected to be in the spotlight for such horrific violence. The August 11 shooting at a Speedway gas station, which has been justified, was witnessed by at least a dozen people who never thought they would witness the gunfight on Friday night. The shock that comes from that lasts for a long time.
Tensions are running high in our state. Watch the inaction and diversionary tactics used in last week’s legislative special session in Nashville. The Republican Party has evaded significant action on meaningful gun safety reforms, choosing instead to violate the public’s right to free speech. Tennesseans and millions across the country watched as state troopers took moms out of Legislative Committee meetings — all because of a banner and applause.
The volunteer state has become ground zero for polarization. Clearly, there are no easy answers for how to proceed.
And no matter which side you take on this complex issue, we’ll have to provide answers to gun violence…together.
And we certainly won’t find those answers by pointing fingers.