Chattanooga police 24-year veteran fired for lying to internal investigators following off-duty road rage incident

Rosana Hughes, Chattanooga Times Free Press, Tenn.
·7 min read

Mar. 28—Longtime Chattanooga police Sgt. Scott Avila was fired recently after an internal investigation concluded that, while off duty, he pointed a gun multiple times at another man in a road rage incident last year and then lied to investigators.

Avila, a 24-year veteran of the department, was riding to the movies in East Ridge with his girlfriend on Jan. 20 when she "suddenly hollered at him and stated she thought there was a drunk driver behind them" on Mack Smith Road, according to Chattanooga police internal affairs records obtained by the Times Free Press.

He told Chattanooga investigators he looked into the rear view mirror and saw a vehicle driving "all over the roadway and speeding right up on their bumper" and that his girlfriend told him the car was "trying to run them off the roadway."

The other driver, however, told investigators that it was Avila's vehicle that was driving too close, so he pulled over to let the vehicle pass and then fell back into traffic behind it.

Once the two vehicles got to the intersection of Mack Smith and Ringgold roads, the other driver told investigators he shouted "something derogatory," like "get a license, or learn how to drive," to Avila's girlfriend.

At the time, that account was the same as what Avila and his girlfriend told East Ridge police, who investigated the road rage incident, according to the incident report.

But by the time Avila spoke with Chattanooga internal investigators, Avila included one more significant detail: that the man "exited his vehicle holding what appeared to be a tire iron in his hand" and began to "threaten and curse her [his girlfriend]," the internal affairs report states.

The alleged tire iron was not found by East Ridge police when they searched the man's vehicle. Avila would later tell Chattanooga investigators the man "could have dropped it or put it under the car."

However, the man and two people, who were in a car directly behind the other man and witnessed two of the interactions between him and Avila and called 911, all said he — the other man — never exited his vehicle, according to the internal affairs report.

On the contrary, the man said he rolled up his window and tried to lock his doors while yelling at Avila to get back in his car, the report states. He alleged that Avila was "waving the gun around" and attempted to open the driver side door before pointing the gun at him.

Avila, however, told Chattanooga investigators he got out of the car, pulled his service weapon, held it beside his hip and told the man he "needed to back 'the f---- off.'" The man then jumped back in his own vehicle, Avila said, at which point Avila walked up to the man's window and asked him, "What the f---- is your malfunction" before eventually going back to his girlfriend's vehicle.

After that interaction, the two vehicles continued on to Ringgold Road. But it wasn't long, Avila alleged, before the man "ran back up on them again, and tried to run them off the road."

The man, however, told investigators he simply ended up behind Avila's vehicle again because he had to drive in the same direction to pick someone up from work, and he wanted to take a photo of the other vehicle's tag number.

Nevertheless, that's when Avila told his girlfriend to stop the car and call the police, the report states.

Avila told investigators he then got back out of the vehicle and opened the other man's passenger side door and reportedly told him they were "going to let the police handle this." But the man "pulled off extremely fast striking him with his vehicle knocking him off his feet."

The man admitted to putting his car in reverse to get around Avila and speeding away, but told investigators he did so because Avila still had a gun in his hand and he believed Avila "was about to shoot him."

One of the witnesses told investigators that was the only time she saw the man drive erratically.

As for Avila, once he got back in his girlfriend's vehicle, he told her to follow the man.

When the man realized he was being followed, he pulled into the East Ridge Starbucks, parked haphazardly and went inside to ask employees to call police, according to the investigative report and East Ridge police body camera footage. But before he went inside, Avila's girlfriend "pulled her vehicle in behind his, and blocked him from leaving," the report states.

"I blocked him in. He wasn't going anywhere after what he did," the girlfriend is heard on body camera footage telling East Ridge police officers at the scene.

She did not return repeated attempts by Chattanooga police to interview her.

However, Avila told Chattanooga investigators the man was "blocked in by traffic," though he also admitted to telling the man "he would shoot him" if the man tried to ram Avila's vehicle to get out.

At the time of the incident, both Avila and the other driver initially wanted to press charges, and East Ridge officers spent some time mulling over how to handle the situation, because if both men pressed charges officers would have to arrest them both.

The officers knew Avila was a Chattanooga police sergeant. But "police or no police," one officer is heard on body camera, he thought that talking both parties into letting go of the issue would be the best outcome, because in that moment it was one person's word against the other.

Avila, however, told Chattanooga investigators that he "felt the East Ridge officers were going overboard in the way they were treating him and his girlfriend. He said he went from the complainant to the suspect and it wasn't right."

The other man eventually chose not to prosecute after learning he'd also be arrested because Avila also also prosecute, alleging aggravated assault for hitting Avila with the vehicle.

During the internal investigation, Avila admitted to losing his temper and said "he should have never got out of the car and used the language he used."

He told investigators it was "stupid of him" to walk up to the vehicle and open the door, but that he felt "his girlfriend has the right to be protected. He said he doesn't feel anyone should just stand by and let [the other driver] violate her rights," investigators noted in the report. "He said tactical stupidity on his side doesn't [mean the other driver was] in the right."

Vince Champion, southeast regional director for the International Brotherhood of Police Officers — the union which represented Avila during his disciplinary hearing — declined comment Friday.

At his March 10 disciplinary hearing, Avila said, "I have been with the Chattanooga Police Department for almost 25 years. During this time, I have considered this more than a place of employment. I've considered this police department to be my family."

"I've poured my heart into this job, helping the citizens of Chattanooga through some of the most heartbreaking situations imaginable," he added, his voice cracking. "I have spilled tears and blood for this family. Through the years, I have earned trust among the citizens and fellow peers. I've been decorated with the lifesaving award and numerous letters of commendation. However, this night I let the department down by my unprofessional conduct and poor judgment. I ask that you take this consideration — just one night of lapse in judgment — not to define your opinion of me or erase what all I stand for and have accomplished. I have learned from this, and I take full responsibility for my actions that night."

By the end of the hearing, Chief David Roddy said both policy violations — untruthfulness and criminal offenses — would be sustained.

"By the discipline matrix available for the police department, both of those, the presumptive level of discipline is termination. So that will be the final disposition today," Roddy said.

Avila would have been eligible to retire within three months of his termination.

"I am sorry, Scott," Roddy added. "I wish it did not come up into one night, but unfortunately it did."

Contact Rosana Hughes at 423-757-6327, rhughes@timesfreepress.com or follow her on Twitter @HughesRosana.