Chattanooga police chief being investigated for official misconduct, residency

Former Atlanta deputy police chief Celeste Murphy joined Chattanooga PD in April 2022.
Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Chattanooga Police Chief Celeste Murphy speaks at a news conference for “Operation Hands Free" to reduce distracted driving at the Tennessee Highway Patrol offices in Lookout Valley on April 1. Murphy is under investigation by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation for official misconduct. (Photo Courtesy of Robin Rudd)

Credit: Robin Rudd

Credit: Robin Rudd

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Chattanooga Police Chief Celeste Murphy speaks at a news conference for “Operation Hands Free" to reduce distracted driving at the Tennessee Highway Patrol offices in Lookout Valley on April 1. Murphy is under investigation by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation for official misconduct. (Photo Courtesy of Robin Rudd)

This story was originally published by the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Chattanooga’s police chief is under investigation for official misconduct, according to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

Chief Celeste Murphy is also the subject of an internal affairs investigation at the department, which she requested, Murphy said.

“I remain committed to CPD and our community,” she said in an email to department staff Wednesday, which was also posted to her social media.

The TBI’s investigation centers on questions about the chief’s residency, Murphy said in her email. The Chattanooga Times Free Press reported in March that public records show Murphy was claiming conflicting residency in both Tennessee and Georgia.

Chattanooga’s city charter requires city employees to live in Tennessee. Murphy was hired in 2022 from the Atlanta Police Department, and records show she still owns a home in that city.

Stan Sewell, Chattanooga’s city auditor, investigated an allegation last year that Murphy was living outside of Tennessee but found it unsubstantiated. He has declined to release records related to the investigation.

Sewell said in an email Wednesday his office hasn’t been asked to look at the matter any further.

Murphy and the department will cooperate with the TBI’s investigation, police spokesperson Sgt. Victor Miller said in an email.

TBI probe

The TBI investigation was requested after members of the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference filed a complaint of official misconduct, TBI spokesperson Susan Niland said in an email Tuesday. The conference is made up of all 32 Tennessee district attorneys, who are the top prosecutors in their areas.

“This is a criminal investigation; we don’t generally handle issues that are civil in nature,” Niland said.

Niland initially said Tuesday that Hamilton County District Attorney Coty Wamp referred the complaint, then recused herself from the case.

When asked about the case, Wamp said her office was not involved with the complaint. In an email, she said the TBI was wrong in saying she made the referral and would correct its statement.

Six minutes later, Niland corrected her previous email to say the complaint came from the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference.

The conference appointed another district attorney, rather than Wamp, to handle the case. In most instances, the district attorney receives information from the TBI’s investigation and report and then decides on whether to bring criminal charges.

A spokesperson for the conference was not available to comment Wednesday. Spokespeople for the TBI said they did not know when the investigation was opened.

Internal investigation

Chattanooga officials asked local labor attorney John Harrison to take on an internal affairs investigation into Murphy “several weeks ago,” Harrison said.

Harrison said he hasn’t yet begun the investigation, as he’s clearing up some potential conflicts due to his firm working on cases involving the city in the past.

The internal case is on pause while the TBI conducts its investigation, Murphy said in her email to employees.

“I hope for a quick resolution to both investigations,” she said. “Due to these ongoing investigations, my statements about them must remain limited.”

Harrison said he hasn’t been told what the subject of the internal investigation is.

“I have not really gotten clarification what exactly is being investigated and what is not,” Harrison said by phone.

What isn’t included in this investigation could be just as important as what is included, Harrison said.

“The mayor expects Chief Murphy will cooperate fully with this investigation,” Eric Holl, a spokesperson for Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly, said in a text. “Our focus remains on keeping Chattanoogans safe, and we know the men and women of CPD are working hard every day to do just that.”

Residency questions

The TBI said its investigation centered on a complaint of official misconduct. In her message to employees Wednesday, Murphy said the investigation is about her place of residence.

Chattanooga requires its employees to live in Tennessee, according to city code (though that could change soon for police and fire employees, excluding department heads like Murphy). But public records show that since starting the job, Murphy continued to claim a homestead exemption on her Atlanta home, a tax break that requires the homeowners to certify the home is their primary residence.

Murphy said in March she filed for the exemption after buying the house and hadn’t revisited it after her move to Chattanooga. She said she planned to contact her tax preparer to make sure she was compliant.

Public records show Murphy registered to vote in Tennessee in July 2022, three months after starting the job. Voter registration in Tennessee requires the voter to affirm their registered address is their legal residence.

The residential address listed on her voter affidavit is a 1,125-square-foot St. Elmo home owned by a police sergeant, who declined comment when the Chattanooga Times Free Press visited and said he was caring for his mother.

The mailing address listed on Murphy’s form is a Southside house where neighbors said they had not seen the chief in the area.

On social media after the Chattanooga Times Free Press story appeared, Murphy did not clear up which of the two homes she might live in — or whether it might be another one.

“We deal with violent criminals regularly,” Murphy said. “There are extreme dangers in revealing where I lay my head, but rest assured, it is in the city that I serve.”

Not on leave

Often when police employees are under criminal investigation, they are placed on paid administrative leave. The decision to do that is up to the discretion of the police chief or the head of the department’s office of professional standards, according to department policies.

Murphy has not been placed on leave due to the TBI’s investigation.

“She has not changed any duties other than she delegated disciplinary review hearings to her executive staff,” Miller said.

Credit: Chattanooga Times Free Press

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Credit: Chattanooga Times Free Press


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