Opinion: Video of Chattanoga police shooting does those seeking ‘justice’ no favors

Staff File Photo By Matt Hamilton / A Chattanooga Police Department vehicle is seen at the Hubert Fry Center on Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020.

The protesters at last week's Chattanooga City Council meeting wanted video — wanted to see precisely what happened in the encounter between 34-year-old Roger Heard Jr. and Chattanooga Police Department officers on Aug. 11 at the Speedway gas station at Third Street and Holtzclaw Avenue that left Heard dead and a police officer wounded.

"We want justice, we want to know what really happened," this newspaper quoted Genella Sims as saying after protesters left the City Council meeting room.

"[W]hy is my child dead from a so-called traffic stop?" Gloria Lewis, Heard's mother, asked before the meeting.

The local chapter of the NAACP said it demanded a "full and transparent investigation," including the release of video footage.

Well, be careful what you wish for.

Security camera footage was released over the weekend and, while the investigation by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation continues, it does not depict Heard as an innocent man wrongly shot down in a hail of police bullets.

Instead, it shows the violent felon, known drug dealer and gang member that Heard was picking up a gun at his side in his car when confronted by police investigators. The investigators, dressed in plain clothes but wearing police badges on their tactical belts, were present to serve felony warrants. The video shows Heard shooting investigator Celtain Batterson. The investigator and one or more other CPD officers then fire back at Heard, who had gotten out of his car and continued to shoot. Ultimately, he falls down, mortally wounded.

The man for whom the protesters wanted justice, according to Hamilton County District Attorney Coty Wamp, was:

› A former federal prisoner, who had served time for being a felon in possession of a firearm and had felony convictions in Hamilton and Bradley counties.

› Being sought for warrants out of Knox County.

› Carrying a gun, which is illegal for a felon, like Heard. The gun also was stolen.

› Preparing to participate "in illegal drug transactions," according to credible witnesses.

› Carrying a "large amount of cash" and about a pound of marijuana, the latter of which, if Heard had been convicted of it, carries a penalty of one to six years in prison and a fine of up to $5,000.

In other words, this was no mere traffic stop of the man known on the streets as Mac Purp.

Because the investigation is continuing, we, like Heard's mother, like the NAACP and like Wamp don't have all the information yet. We don't even have audio for the relatively excellent video that was released after being obtained by the TBI through a subpoena of a private company in a different state.

So when Wamp says Batterson and Officer Nicholas Ayres were "loudly and repeatedly announcing themselves as police officers" to Heard, we only can assume that happened, or imagine that witnesses said it happened, but can't authenticate it from audio.

The district attorney also said since it is not CPD protocol for investigators to be equipped with body-worn cameras, no body-worn camera footage of the incident exists. But whether there is other additional security from the area or cellphone video taken by anybody at the scene is not known.

Despite the 16 minutes of tape released Sunday, the local NAACP said it is renewing its "call for the public release of ... vital information" that might include the total video from the Speedway and the "police video and audio or live stream from other sources in police custody."

Wamp, in remarks after a public statement she made with the released video, acknowledged the ongoing investigation but praised the officers for doing what they'd been trained to do.

"The officers involved in this incident, like so many officers are required to do, were forced to make split-second decisions under extreme stress and pressure," she said. "Investigator Batterson, Investigator Ayers, and Officer [Christopher] Dyess did the exact job that they were called and trained to do. Our community is fortunate beyond measure that we did not lose a law enforcement officer."

All three officers, per protocol, were placed on leave, and Batterson underwent surgery last week for his wounds. He is expected to recover.

The TBI has been asked to investigate 39 officer-involved shootings in Tennessee this year, including three in Hamilton County. Two of those involved the CPD, the Aug. 11 incident and one in March in which a man suspected of breaking into vehicles was shot by an officer when the man reached for a knife on the ground, and one involving the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office in June when a deputy fired at the driver of a vehicle that continued to travel in the directions of deputies after a forcible stop.

The TBI, according to information on its website, "makes no determination about whether an officer's actions were justified in these types of matters." Such a determination will be made by Wamp, based on the TBI report.

So, all parties must wait until all the evidence is in, but the released video does no favors for parties demanding "justice" for Roger Heard.