Opinion: Rushing to judgment fails law enforcement and the public

Staff File Photo By Robin Rudd / Students arrive for the first day of classes at East Ridge High and Middle schools on Aug, 7, 2019.

For the second time in recent weeks, a current or former Hamilton County Sheriff's Office deputy accused of exhibiting aggressive tactics has been cleared or found blameless.

The knee-jerk reaction on one side would be that the local court system must be biased toward supporting law enforcement. On the other side it would be that the officers did everything right and had no cause to have fingers pointed at them.

The truth, as always, is somewhat more complex.

In the most recent case, involving an 18-year-old East Ridge High School student who was forcibly arrested last September, Hamilton County General Sessions Court Judge Gary Starnes said Friday the student, Tauris Sledge, appeared to be at fault.

"Mr. Sledge escalated this entire incident," he said. "All he had to do was do what his teacher said."

That's the problem, isn't it? Many children today are taught that they are always right, that they should resist authority, that any incident could be racially motivated and that any incident elevated to social media could be spun in their favor.

In the incident, Sledge had been sitting in the bleachers during gym class, complaining that he didn't feel well as a game of kickball was organized. Later, he came off the bleachers to play basketball and was confronted by the coach, asking how he could play if he didn't feel well.

According to the affidavit, the student started "puffing his chest" and calling the coach racist. After the coach sought backup from School Resource Officer Tyler McRae, the student began to get louder in his conversation with the coach. McRae told him to "chill," then as the student turned away, he put his hand on the student's shoulder in an attempt to take him aside for a private conversation.

Sledge became defensive and told the officer to remove his hand. The officer, who felt Sledge was about to assault him, told him to stand up and place his hands behind his back so he could be detained. Sledge refused, and the officer attempted to restrain him by grabbing his backpack, his hair, giving commands for him to stop resisting and finally by using pepper spray. The incident, which ended with Sledge's arrest, was captured on the officer's body camera, which was released to the public, and by a brief clip made by a student and uploaded to social media.

Following the incident, McRae, who is white, was made out to be a bully toward Sledge, who is Black. School board member Karitsa Mosley Jones said the incident was "troubling," that her heart went out "to that child" and opined that she didn't know McRae's "moral or ethical values or where he stands as it relates to implicit bias, discrimination, prejudice."

East Ridge High students and teachers, with permission from the district office, walked out of classes to protest the arrest. The local chapter of the NAACP posted the video to its Facebook page and said it had "questions and needs explanations." A spokesman for another local civil rights organization chalked the incident up to a systemic problem "when it comes to the treatment of our students of color."

During the preliminary hearing for the incident on Friday, Starnes dismissed the criminal charge of assault but let the charges of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest go to the grand jury.

"The video speaks for itself," the judge said.

McRae, who had requested to be assigned to the schools to "protect our children," according to the southeast regional director for the International Brotherhood of Police Officers (IBPO), had been on the job only a month and a half when the incident occurred. He later requested and was granted a transfer back to patrol.

"He did his job," the IBPO spokesman said in October, "and now what he wanted to do, he can't do anymore, not because he's wrong, but because social media, attorneys and so-called civil rights leaders are tweeting things that they don't even know. I am ashamed of those teachers who walked out."

Sledge's attorneys said they are glad the assault charge was dismissed and they would continue to defend him.

"We believe that what Deputy McRae did to Tauris was criminal," attorney Chrissy Mincy said.

Earlier this month, all Criminal Court charges in a 44-count indictment were dismissed against former Deputy Daniel Wilkey because the prosecutor said he saw "no avenues ot prosecution" because of "missing files" in the case. Days later, federal charges were dismissed against another deputy who was involved in an incident along with Wilkey.

Concerning both cases, in no way do we believe the local court system is biased toward supporting law enforcement. Neither do we think — especially concerning Wilkey — that their actions didn't deserve criticism. But, in McRae's case, as with many situations involving law enforcement, he did what he thought the situation called for. Unfortunately, officers can't have a policies and procedures manual in their hand as they attempt to de-escalate an ongoing incident, but they can always learn from it.

As children and adults continue to become more self-righteous and resistant to authority, though, such a manual will never be up to date.