As part of an ongoing effort to build trust and understanding, a class of cadets graduating from the Chattanooga police academy presented findings of a community immersion project during an event at the Camp House on Thursday.
The watchword of the event was "diversity," and cadets spoke candidly about the revelations they had concerning the communities they soon will serve, including those of Latinos, Muslims and LGBTQ individuals.
"It can be a polarizing word. But diversity is so important and it's something that should be celebrated, not feared," said Joshua Woodrow, chaplain for the Chattanooga Police Department. "If you do [fear it], that will lead to mistrust."
"We are a very diverse city and in some pockets of the neighborhood you could run into all kinds of ethnicities. Don't be afraid to be inclusive to those people you find. If you only include a small group who looks like you, walk like you, talk like you, you'll exclude everyone else," he said.
The goal of the program is to nurture an ongoing conversation between officers and community members about what can be improved or changed to allow officers to work more effectively in Chattanooga. Troy Rogers, the city's public safety coordinator, said it is necessary for officers to be actively involved in those communities.
"That's the kind of police officers we need. We need police officers who are going to get out of their car and see what's going on," he said.
In addition to learning more about Chattanooga's communities, efforts are being made in the department to ensure the officers themselves represent varying backgrounds.
According to numbers provided by a department spokesman, 79 percent of Chattanooga police officers are white, 16 percent are black, and just under 4 percent are Latino. Police Chief David Roddy said progress is being made not only in recruiting, but in the conversations taking place.
He previously told the Times Free Press that efforts are being made to attract, recruit and retain diverse applicants, primarily by encouraging officers to maintain personal one-on-one contacts with applicants through the process. He said touching base with applicants consistently "gives them stake."
He said some of the largest improvements have been made by building on those connections and identifying roadblocks that might be preventing graduation.
"I absolutely believe it's improving," Roddy said.
"Those relationships are improving, and I'm encouraged by the strength and volume of those conversations we're having every day," he said. "Our community is a diverse range of perspectives and faces."
Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6731. Follow him on Twitter @emmettgienapp.