Chattanooga has a new opportunity, and it is decades overdue. The city has a new police chief whose record and demeanor are impressive.
Fred Fletcher, 46, is presently a commander of a region in Austin, Texas, comparable to the size of Chattanooga. He will start to work here likely in June.
"My task is to help the community be safer," he says plainly.
And he will do that by working to mend the community's broken trust and by building on the city's already promising violence reduction initiative.
He faces a challenge: Chattanooga is among the nation's most violent cities, and tops the list for aggravated assaults -- much of it garnered in the inner city where poverty is high and racial distrust is higher.
Fletcher's history indicates he is up for the contest: The segment of Austin where he recently oversaw law enforcement is a large swath of East Austin known for its decades-old, open-air drug market once dubbed "a mall for addicts." During his tenure, the area reported a 14 percent decrease in violent crime and a 9 percent decrease in property crime from 2012 to 2013. He says that work was accomplished by building community trust and using strong police investigations. Those two elements helped him -- and his officers -- build cases.
They didn't just prosecute everything that moved. They used techniques from the High Point, N.C., program that Chattanooga's violence reduction program is adapted from. They used some of the cases they developed as leverage to help people and the community. They offered people suspected of low-level offenses the opportunity to seek help and change their ways in lieu of criminal charges.
"The successes I've had [in Austin] were not mine. They were the successes of the community after they learned to trust their full-time public safety representatives again," Fletcher said Friday.
He believes that's possible here.
"This community cares about itself," he said. "And tangible results will breed trust and success. Especially when you do it in a manner that is appreciative of people's differences and people's rights."
Fletcher brings tools to the Chattanooga police chief's office in a combination that we've not had before. He's young, as was former chief Bobby Dodd; he has broader out-of-Chattanooga experience, as did former chief Jimmie Dotson; and he has an analytical and data-driven method of looking for ways to improve public safety.
With a bachelor's degree in accounting, the 20-year cop jokingly refers to himself as a "recovering accountant." He also sees tremendous value in technology. Like his belief in community trust, those are mindsets that have been sorely missing here in the past.
Austin activist Del Goss says, "Chattanooga is very lucky, and Austin is very unlucky."
Goss tells a story about riding through his Austin neighborhood with Fletcher soon after their first meeting.
"He would say, 'Stop, here.' And he would get out and introduce himself to people on the street. He played basketball with kids. He introduced himself to some people I would have been afraid of," Goss said. "He is intelligent, compassionate and just a [darn] good cop."
Fletcher sees Chattanooga's department -- with 55 percent of the force having less than 10 years of experience and about two-thirds having less than 14 years experience -- as being "youthful" and moldable. Across the police industry, the newer officers are coming with different degrees and backgrounds, such as social work, lawyering and human resources.
"They're young and talented and diverse. They are a tremendous resource. What they need [here] is a skilled and experienced leader," Fletcher said.
Across the table, Mayor Andy Berke smiled.
That's what he says he saw -- skill, experience and community knowhow-- when he chose Fletcher as the new police chief.
Here's to the future.