Guest Post by Eric Holcombe
The TN Department of
Safety and Homeland Security Commissioner Bill Gibbons has encouraged us to “say something if we see something” and is encouraged at the thought of combined federal, state, military and local police forces quadrupling effort of keeping us safe. I noticed that nobody is talking too much about having uniformed military personnel on site here policing the citizens. Yes, despite 10 years of “fighting them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here”, they are still here, and apparently “them” is really “us”. So, we are being encouraged now at the state level, like Big Sis Napolitano has been doing at the federal level, to inform on your neighbors “if you see something suspicious”. You’ll note this is VERY similar language to Bill’s weigh station VIPR press conference – I wonder who wrote it? Well, I submit that we have already done what Commissioner Gibbons is channeling from Washington suggesting in Tennessee, even on occasion with combined efforts of state and local police forces, with not so great results.
The first installment of If You See Something, Say Something takes us back to 2003. Not too far back, still well within the time frame for the “war on terror”. Many of you will remember this story because of what happened to the victims at the hands of combined state and local police, but you might not remember how it all began.
Let me reintroduce you to James and Pamela Smoak. After being tailed for 8 miles on I-40 east by THP, they are pulled over, removed from their vehicle, placed on their knees and handcuffed on the side of I-40 along with the “coordinated effort” of local Cookeville police. They are told they are suspected for a robbery in Davidson County (which hasn’t been reported). After repeatedly asking officers to close the open doors of their car on the side of the interstate because of their two dogs inside (and this request being ignored/denied), one of the dogs leaves the vehicle and approaches the crowd behind the car with tail wagging. Cookeville Police officer Eric Hill shoots the dog “in fear for his life”. The family can’t believe what is happening and when James begins to move in protest, he is trampled by the “coordinated effort” of state and local police, injuring his knee in the process.
So how did this all begin? Well, somebody followed Commissioner Gibbons’ new found advice:
“one Veronica Louwien called the Tennessee Highway Patrol (THP) and spoke to dispatcher Shannon Pickard, exclaiming:
“I’m driving down Interstate 40 in Wilson County [Tennessee], going towards Lebanon. I passed the Mt. Juliet Exit, and a car passed me. It was kind of like a station wagon. It was dark green. It was probably going 110 miles an hour. And then not too far in front of me, there was money flying all over the interstate . . . .”
Mr. Smoak had left his wallet on top of the car when they fueled up at a gas station. The whole wallet came off the top of the car along with about $440 in cash. You really should read the first few pages here for a breakdown of the facts contained in court records. The beginning pages are the statement of facts from THP trooper Bush’s lost appeal ruling for his use of excessive force on the Smoak’s. It puts a whole new perspective on the incompetence of the dispatchers, “coordinated effort” with local police and jumping to conclusions. In a matter of minutes, the THP turned this into an armed robbery in Davidson County (which never was reported) and a Be On the LookOut for green “kind of like a station wagon”. This despite THP responding to the loose cash in the median at Mt. Juliet and discovering Mr. Smoak’s license and identity in the process. Apparently $440 is also “mucho mucho dinero” and worthy of a “felony” stop because you just shouldn’t have that much money and obviously stole it. I mean, speeding alleged by an unknown informant in a “kind of like a station wagon” is a felony too right? Even Cookeville officer Hall who ends up shooting the dog asked what the “felony” stop was for and couldn’t get an answer from dispatch. HELLO! Isn’t that sufficient evidence that you do not have suspicion or cause to stop these folks? Even when you consider these events developing simultaneously, the Smoak’s traveled approximately 60 miles prior to being tailed by trooper Bush – over 30 minutes at the alleged “110 miles an hour.”
Of course, no charges were filed against the Smoak’s. The Smoak’s weren’t guilty of anything except being victims of “if you see something, say something”. They were allowed to leave (with their dead dog) to continue their journey home. Then THP and Cookeville Police proceeded to lie about what happened – claiming the dog was attacking them, rushing and growling, etc. until the THP video evidence proved them to be liars – contrary to the reports they submitted. Both of the Cookeville officers had not activated their video cameras because they are interlocked with the emergency lighting on the vehicles, which they kept turned off allegedly to prevent silhouetting the officers on the scene – or interfering with the other car’s camera system (which was also turned off) depending on which excuse you like the best.
So, you must be thinking, “this is terrible, I’m glad we have things like internal affairs in police departments to oversee these kinds of incidents and prevent abuse by police officers. Surely justice will be done for the Smoaks.” See the Cookeville PD internal affairs report here where Cookeville officers Hill and McWhorter have virtually identical stories for internal affairs (starting on p.72) that are later contradicted by the video evidence (and the court of appeals ruling facts linked above). Note the Cookeville police department sent the THP video they did have a copy of (and therefore knew their officers were not telling the truth) to an independent reviewer in Maryland (her review starts on p. 27 of the report). She couldn’t make a judgement regarding the dog because insufficient information was provided by Cookeville PD to give context to the stop, but she was critical of the tactical errors by the officers – endangering themselves. Note that this resulted in no action by the department – they were only interested in being justified by a third party in taking no action against officer Hill. That was the pre-determined outcome. So they put out a condescending letter to Mrs. Smoak in response to her complaint (p. 30 of the report). Note the excuses made here by Chief Terry: they didn’t know what the stop was about, etc. They are really sorry about the dog (despite the grins and chuckles on the video by the officers). But lying and conspiracy is apparently acceptable – because that’s not excessive force.
This has since resulted in multiple law suits (and subsequent cash awards) against the THP and Cookeville officers and the City of Cookeville – but the lying officers stayed on the job. The thin blue line takes care of their own. They even appeal for immunity – that they cannot be held responsible for their actions because they are agents of the state. Sometimes the court agrees with them. I know, that’s a real shocker. Of course state and municipalities have laws in place to financially limit themselves (and their negligent employees) to their responsibility, uh, I mean liability.
Maybe you are thinking, “Well, it’s worth the occasional illegal search/excessive force on innocent citizens to catch the real boogieman. The Smoaks are just one instance and those types of events are unfortunate, but the problem police departments and corrupt internal affairs departments should be taken care of by supervision/oversight“.
You mean like, say, independent oversight outside the police department internal affairs, like maybe a district attorney? Think they would say something if they saw something suspicious? Stay tuned for V2.0.