PHOTOS: Tri-Cities law enforcement use of force - WSLS 10 NBC in Roanoke/Lynchburg Va

PHOTOS: Tri-Cities law enforcement use of force


If a suspect puts up a fight, in the old days police could only rely on their fists, batons and guns. Not anymore. Now they carry chemical spray and stun guns on their belts. One county even uses bean bags fired from a shotgun to get people to cooperate.

Officers will tell you the last thing they want to do is get physical when arresting someone or controlling an inmate, but it happens; in some places more than in others.

In a special Community Watchdog investigation, we uncovered exactly which departments use force the most and found out one agency has even punished officers and even fired some for excessive force.

From 2010 to 2012, the Washington County Sheriff's Office used force the most among the largest law enforcement agencies; 517 times. Sullivan County came in a close second with 434 uses of force. For both, most of those cases stemmed from their jails.

When it comes to road officers the Kingsport Police Department led the list with 178 reports, followed by the Bristol, Tennessee, Police Department with 164, the Johnson City Police Department with 159 uses of force, the Sullivan County Sheriff's Office with 125 cases and the Washington County Sheriff's Office with 76 reports.

In Washington County, one out of four people responsible for "subject resistance reports" were on the receiving end of the department's chemical spray. Sheriff Ed Graybeal says those people could have avoided it had they just listened.

"It only occurs if the subject doesn't obey the commands of the officer that's given it to him," Sheriff Graybeal said. "It's a reaction to what someone you ask to do if they don't follow that order to just keep everybody safe."

The sheriff says his officers only use chemical spray if physical presence, verbal warnings and verbal commands don't work. Still, it's been the go-to option in Washington County. The department's reports revealed employees used the spray 401 times; roughly twice as much as the other agencies combined.

The sheriff says that's because his detention officers are in constant contact with inmates. He says supervisors have reviewed every case and found every time the officer's actions were justified.

"Every report that comes through is gone over by at least four people," the sheriff said. "When you have 700, 715 people, they're living with them and tempers flare when things go wrong and our guys do an excellent, excellent job. They're trained really well to take care of that thing just as soon as it happens."

When it comes to stun guns, Johnson City used that kind of force more than anyone else. Police used it 61 times over a three year period. The department says part of the reason why is because more than half of the city's officers carry a stun gun.

"We think it's appropriate the times that we've used it," Maj. Karl Turner said. "We think our uses of force are justified."

As a result, Maj. Turner says the city's workers' compensation claims have dropped. He says people often leave them with no choice but to pull the stun gun trigger.

"We saw many subjects who were under the influence of bath salts who were really uncontrollable," Maj. Turner said. "In that three year period we've had over 13,000 arrests and 61 uses of the Taser so that's less than one-half of one-percent of our arrests where that's been used."

When it comes to getting physical, the Kingsport Police Department used physical force the most among police departments with 92 times reports.

"If you're struggling and if I have to take you all the way to the ground, there's no injury, the use of force is minimal, but we document it," Chief David Quillin said.

Like other agencies, even when the use of force is minimal, the chief says his officers file a report. Historically, the chief says the department's uses of force have been reasonable. He says the officers also go through significant training about when and how to use force.

If there's any doubt, he says supervisors review every report and when needed, like in a case back in 2010, they suggest ways officers can learn from an incident.

"You can't forget the basics that police officers have been taught, the basic wrist-locks, which are very effective," the chief said. "Maybe this is an opportunity for us to go back and recognize that this particular case, maybe we need to re-focus and make sure the officers are up-to-date and still knowledgeable and still practicing the basics."

All of the agencies we asked said they haven't disciplined a single officer for excessive force during the years we looked at and all said they had zero substantiated complaints of excessive force, except Sullivan County.

"Over the 15 years I've had to let some people go because of excessive force and it's not something you want to do, but there's no use in being excessive about it," Sheriff Wayne Anderson.

Sullivan County's top law enforcement officer talked candidly about those rare cases.

"If it sounds like a complaint that needs to be investigated, we investigate it," Sheriff Anderson said.

He says he just won't stand for his officers crossing the line. Over the last four years his department has fired two employees, a patrol officer and corrections officer after internal investigations revealed they used too much force. He also suspended two other employees and placed them on probation.

"Officers are just like anybody else, they have a temper, but they also at the same time, we all have tempers, we all have to be professional and they've been trained to be professional and they do the best that they can do," Sheriff Anderson said.

Still, despite those unusual cases, the sheriff says his department's use of force is almost always justified, even though his employees have had to use physical force more than any other large local agency (police or sheriff's department).

"It's not bad when you arrest several thousand a year," the sheriff said. "You're going to get somebody that's intoxicated, somebody that's on drugs, nobody wants to go to jail, nobody's going to volunteer to go into jail, so sometimes you've got to make them get in the car."

When you compare the number of arrests to the number of times force was used, at every agency, it equals or is less than 1.5% of the time. However, Bristol is the exception, using force 4.1% of the time.

AgencyPercentage of arrests using force 
Bristol, TN Police Department    4.1%
Kingsport Police Department    1.45%
Johnson City Police Department    1.2%
Sullivan County Sheriff's Office.76%
Washington County Sheriff's Office    .58%

The numbers suggest Bristol, TN police use force more often than anyone else. Why?

"It could be a number of factors," Chief Blaine Wade said. "We require a Use of Force report for many instances that other departments may not and we mandate compliance with those reports. For example, we require a use of force incident when an officer points his weapon at a suspect or if an officer has a physical restraint more than handcuffing. If our mandate for requiring a report is more stringent than other departments. That easily drives the statistics."

Back in Washington County, Sheriff Graybeal is proud of his numbers.

"It's the reality of what we do for a living," Sheriff Graybeal said. "We don't want the officer to get hurt, if he can use a chemical spay, which is non-lethal."

Still, he says officers don't take it lightly. After all, any officer who fires chemical spray knows how it feels. To be able to carry it they had to feel its effects first-hand.

Agency Road Officers Detention Officers Chemical Taser Firearm K-9
Washington County  76 441 401 16 0 0
Sullivan County  125 309 96 3 1 3
Johnson City  159 39 61 1 3
Kingsport  178 52 40 2 4
Bristol, TN  164 15 53 2 (one dog) 1

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