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Jail under fire for turning away arrestees with medical issues

Since March 1, Bradley County Jail officials have refused entry on medical grounds to at least three men

By Judy Walton
Chattanooga Times/Free Press

CLEVELAND, Tenn. — The ongoing booking brouhaha between the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office and Cleveland Police Department became urgent when somebody died.

Thomas Creek Jr. was briefly in the news in March when his body was found dumped in a remote area of Polk County. Cleveland police said at the time his family had reported him missing March 23, and he hadn’t been seen since March 14.

What wasn’t made public was that Creek, 34, had been arrested that night on warrants for theft, shoplifting and drug possession. A police incident report says he was turned away at the Bradley County Jail for medical reasons and taken by ambulance to a local hospital.

He didn’t stay in the hospital for long. He made a few calls — including to his mother — walked out under his own power and was never seen alive again.

It wasn’t the first time Bradley County Jail officials refused entry on medical grounds to someone under arrest. On March 1, the jail refused to take two heavily intoxicated men. In that case, city officers dropped the two off at the hospital.

On March 28, jailers turned away a man with a cut on his arm brought in on a felony warrant. Bodycam video shows officers made several futile attempts to turn the man over for booking before uncuffing him and setting him free right in the jail’s sally port.

Sources in the sheriff’s office and Cleveland police department, who asked for anonymity because they’re not authorized to speak on the issue, have told the Times Free Press it’s at least partly an interdepartmental feud about which agency has to pay the hospital bills for sick or injured prisoners.

But Cleveland Police Chief Mark Gibson said prisoners’ medical bills aren’t his department’s problem.

According to state law, jailers must accept anyone who has been arrested and are responsible for providing medical care, either by the jail’s medical staff or at a hospital.

“This is not our agency making up the rules,” Gibson said in a telephone interview Friday. “We have an obligation, we fulfill that obligation and deliver [prisoners] to the jail. If they don’t accept them at the jail that puts us in a spot: What do you do now?”

Gibson said if someone is injured or has a medical emergency during an arrest by a city officer, his people are going to call an ambulance.

“We’re not delivering people to the jail that have a serious medical condition or emergency and expecting the jail to deal with it,” he said.

In Creek’s case, Officer Don Nation’s incident report said he didn’t mention any medical issues during the arrest at the Crown Inn. At the jail, Nation wrote, Creek “changed attitude and began to complain of cellulitis in both legs.” His blood pressure was slightly elevated, Nation wrote. Jailers refused him and he was taken to the hospital by ambulance, the report states.

It’s not clear how long Creek stayed at the hospital before walking out.

Creek’s mother, Kitty Creek, said he called her that night and asked her to pick him up, but she didn’t have a working car.

“It’s a horrible feeling thinking that I might have stopped this if my car was not broke down,” Kitty Creek said via Facebook.

Thomas Creek’s body was found March 28 in a remote area of Polk County. On March 30, Sean Scott Hale was arrested in DeKalb County, Ala., and a car believed to have been used was found burned in Fort Payne, Cleveland police have said.

Kitty Creek says if her son had gone to jail, he might still be alive.

“What I don’t understand is this was the second or third time the jail refused him,” she said. “They knew he would leave the hospital, he left the last time. Why didn’t they leave an officer with him?”

She was referring to his March 3 arrest during a traffic stop on a warrant and for drug possession. The police report by officer Taylor Thompson said Creek complained of pain in his ankles and was taken by ambulance to the hospital without stopping by the jail.

“That night he told me they released him so I picked him up,” Kitty Creek said.

Jadarius Huggins was the man with the cut arm who was set free March 28. He’d been arrested for violating probation on a felony burglary conviction.

Bodycam video shows Officer Bradley Colbaugh tried to give a copy of an attorney general’s opinion stating that the jail must accept all prisoners to corrections personnel. Lt. Carol Edwards refused it and ordered jailers not to accept any papers or open the jail door.

Colbaugh called his supervisor, Sgt. Buddy Mitchell, who came to the jail and asked Edwards, “Do you know this is possibly criminal?”

She responded that she was just following departmental policies.

Gibson said the officers had no choice but to uncuff Hudgins and turn him loose.

“We followed the law. They did not accept him and we released him in the sally port. That’s the only option we have; we can’t drive him around all night.”

Then, though, Gibson called Sheriff Eric Watson and got him to agree to take Hudgins, so Colbaugh and Mitchell had to track him down and arrest him all over again.

Colbaugh’s bodycam video shows the handcuffed Hudgins sitting in the car inside the sally port for the second time that night.

“This is f—— up,” Hudgins said.

“It is,” Colbaugh agreed.

It’s that incident that led to summit talks between the two departments.

Gibson said he met with Watson and some of his officers, along with County Attorney Crystal Freiberg, on April 5 and gave them copies of the state law, the attorney general’s opinion and a confirmatory opinion from the University of Tennessee’s County Technical Advisory Service saying the jail must accept prisoners and provide medical care.

“We all agreed it was a situation that needed to be case by case, but we agreed on a process where we bring them over there and they will be booked in from now on,” he said.

The police department will be responsible if someone is injured during an arrest, he said, but otherwise the jail will have to provide care through its contract medical staff or at the hospital.

“It’s something we need to fix and I think we’ve made great progress in fixing it,” Gibson said.

Asked why he hadn’t mentioned the arrest in his statement when Creek’s body was found, Gibson said they didn’t have much information at that point and that a suspect was at large.

Watson did not respond directly to a request for comment, but Freiberg provided a statement Friday afternoon.

“The Bradley County Sheriff’s Office is aware that the Bradley County jail must accept all persons arrested pursuant to law by the Sheriff’s Office or any City Police Officers,” she wrote.

“Bradley County does not ‘refuse’ inmates,” Freiberg added. She said the jail’s contract medical staff decides whether any prisoner needs emergency medical care.

To a Times Free Press question about whether Creek could have worked the “refuse-and-refer” policy to avoid imprisonment, Freiberg said the “specifics of any particular person’s medical conditions cannot be disclosed.”

She added, “Discussions between the Sheriff’s Office and the City of Cleveland have resulted in better communication between the Departments to ensure that all persons arrested by both agencies receive appropriate and timely emergency medical care.”

Kitty Creek said her son messaged her from the ambulance and called her from the hospital that night.

“I told him on [Facebook] Messenger that he needed to get the medical help he needed and to stay at the hospital.”


©2017 the Chattanooga Times/Free Press (Chattanooga, Tenn.)