UPDATE: Former Chattanooga police officer sues the Chattanooga Fire and Police Pension Fund for denying benefits
UPDATE: A former Chattanooga police officer is suing the Chattanooga Fire and Police Pension Fund, which he once led, for denying his application for disability pension benefits.
Court documents show Craig Joel is asking a judge to reverse the group’s decision and allow his health insurance coverage to continue “in light of his medical retirement due to his disability.”
Joel resigned from the department in 2018 before a disciplinary hearing could be held to discuss allegations that he was driving his city vehicle while drunk.
A Channel 3 investigation uncovered that Hamilton County deputies released Joel on February 2, 2018 to CPD command after a witness at a nearby restaurant called 9-1-1 reporting a possible drunk driver in an undercover police vehicle.
Joel was not charged with a crime in the incident that sparked an internal affairs investigation.
Documents show four days after the incident, on February 6, 2018, Joel met with a City of Chattanooga social worker.
On April 2, 2018, Joel submitted a worker’s compensation claim for benefits for a mental injury caused by responding to the terrorist attacks on July 16, 2015.
According to the lawsuit, on April 13, 2018, a doctor diagnosed Joel with Chronic Post Traumatic Stress Disorder caused by “traumatic exposures in the line of duty.”
Joel was examined by another doctor on December 19, 2018, who said Joel’s PTSD condition “was activated on February 2, 2018 as a result of a disturbing encounter Joel had earlier in the day with another CPD officer who was also a first responder to the July 16th attack.”
The lawsuit claims “improper evidence” tainted the Chattanooga Fire and Police Pension Fund’s decision on February 26, 2019 and that the internal affairs investigation was closed with no finding.
Employee records obtained by Channel 3 show the internal affairs investigation found that Joel violated four department policies. Those records list the violations as, “criminal offense, unbecoming conduct, improper procedure regarding weapon security and untruthfulness.”
Joel’s lawsuit claims two members of the Chattanooga Fire and Police Pension Fund panel, Captain Nathan Vaughan and Sergeant Joe Shaw, were biased against Joel and should have recused themselves from the panel because of their involvement with Joel’s internal affairs investigation.
Joel is asking a judge to reverse the Fund’s decision to allow him to receive disability, retirement benefits and health insurance coverage. He is also asking that the Fund reimburse him for attorney fees.
Channel 3 has reached out to Joel and his attorney for comment.
PREVIOUS STORY: A veteran Chattanooga police officer is accused of driving his city vehicle drunk.
He resigned before a disciplinary hearing could be held and now documents obtained by Channel 3 show steps were taken to keep his name out of a report.
It's taken Channel 3 10 months to gain access to documentation that shows how the February incident was handled.
Recorded interviews reveal internal affairs investigators questioned why a well-known police officer's name was left out of two reports.
The deputy who wrote those reports said she was told to.
"I was told not to put any names in there because it involved law enforcement. I was told to be generic in the report," Hamilton County Deputy Charlene Choate said during an internal affairs interview.
Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond said former Chattanooga Police Lt. Craig Joel did receive special treatment during a public intoxication call in February.
"I wish they had simply laid the facts out there," Sheriff Jim Hammond said.
It started with a 911 call and was captured by a nearby surveillance camera.
The video shows the 21-year veteran stumbling out of his city-owned vehicle at the Amigo's Restaurant on Highway 58 and Hamilton County deputies Charlene Choate and John Robbs arriving at the scene.
Choate explained in an internal affairs interview that she placed Joel in handcuffs when he would not follow commands but she chose not to charge him.
"I just don't think a charge of public intoxication would have helped him in his situation," Choate explained in her internal affairs interview.
"My officer had no knowledge when she made this stop what she was dealing with. As it began to unfold, what she was dealing with, she had already made her decision not to arrest and that was honored," Hammond responded.
Internal affairs investigators with Chattanooga Police spoke to several higher-ranking officers with the police department and sheriff's office who were on scene and chose to take Joel to a separate location so he could be released.
When Channel 3 received reports of the incident in February, we asked for the report.
The first version was vague, leaving out all of the names of those involved.
Six days later, Choate filed a new report with more information but again left out Joel's name, any mention of a city vehicle or Joel's service weapon and badge being found in the car's floor board.
Channel 3 wanted to know why.
"There is a narrow window when a supervisor, because of their own training, can instruct someone to write a report different. What was the motive behind it? I wasn't there. I didn't make it. I don't think I would have done it that way," Hammond said.
Hammond said the officers involved have received verbal warnings and has issued new directions on how to handle situations involving other officers.
The internal affairs investigation into Joel's actions has been closed.
Documents show Joel resigned on November 7th, one day before his disciplinary hearing.
Now, it will be up to the Fire and Police Pension Board, which Joel once led, to decide if he will receive his pension and medical benefits. These are benefits Joel tells Channel 3 he needs.
Joel declined our multiple requests for an on-camera interview but told Channel 3 over the phone that there is a medical component that he is not allowed to discuss pending a hearing.
The sheriff said there are steps a deputy can take if they are being instructed to do something by a superior that they do not feel comfortable doing.
Channel 3 reached out to Choate but have not heard back.
Stay with the WRCB app for updates to this story.
PREVIOUS STORY: A veteran police officer and former spokesperson for the Chattanooga Police Department is on modified duty and under investigation for allegedly drinking while in possession of a city vehicle.
Channel 3 received numerous calls and e-mails from viewers asking us to look into this story.
It wasn't easy locating information about the incident back in February that launched an internal affairs investigation.
Lt. Craig Joel's name was left out of the report which was filed by a Hamilton County deputy.
For the last four months, we've been asking why Joel, who is a well-known face for the department, is on modified duty.
A 911 call and personnel records obtained by Channel 3 help answer the questions that no one is willing to answer.
"There's a gentleman, in a black Ford car, I believe it is. He's fallen over drunk," the caller reported to 911 on February 2, 2018.
The caller, an employee at Amigo's off Highway 58, called to report an intoxicated man inside what she identified as a police car.
"I'm pretty sure it may be an undercover police car. I'm pretty sure there's lights on the front of it," the caller stated. "He's laying down in the car seat now. I don't know if he's going to try and start his car or what?"
The Chattanooga Police Department confirms the man in the car was Lt. Craig Joel, a 20-year department veteran, who served as the department's public information officer and president of the Chattanooga Fire and Police Pension Fund Board.
A spokesperson also confirms the black Ford Fusion named in the report is a city-owned vehicle.
The responding officer noted Joel "appeared to be extremely intoxicated," but he did not pursue charges because he only saw Joel outside the car.
The officer turned Joel over to the Chattanooga Police Department which placed Joel on a two week paid leave. He's been on modified duty since then, pending an internal affairs investigation.
This is not the first time Joel has been involved in an incident involving alcohol and a city vehicle.
In 2004, he was suspended without pay for five days after a crash involving his patrol car.
He was found not at fault for causing the crash, but a breathalyzer showed his blood alcohol content was .09 percent, which is over the legal limit of .08 percent.
He was not charged but did lose his take-home car privileges for four months and was required to attend counseling.
The current investigation, which launched in February, remains open.
It's not clear if Joel will be on the force when it concludes.
According to meeting minutes, in April, Joel resigned from the Chattanooga Fire and Police Pension Fund Board and applied for job-related disability.
Channel 3 has requested a copy of that application to learn more.
Joel declined our request for an interview but tells Channel 3 he is now on medical leave pending retirement.
The pension board, that he once led, will determine if Joel gets retirement benefits.
A spokesperson for the Chattanooga Police Department tells Channel 3 the internal affairs investigation will continue even if Joel retires before it is completed.
We wanted to know why the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office left Joel's name, tag number and other key information out of its report.
They tell Channel 3 it is not uncommon for information to be omitted from a report when there are no charges filed.
Stay with Channel 3 for updates on this story.
In Joel's time with the Chattanooga Police Department, there have been seven internal affairs investigations opened against him. An action was taken in five of those cases, including one last year when the police chief asked for an investigation into a picture Joel posted on Facebook of a female WRCB employee on assignment at the police department. Joel received a letter of reprimand in that case.