Chief looks for culture change in Chattanooga Police Department

photo New Chattanooga police chief Fred Fletcher speaks to police officers after his swearing-in ceremony.

Chattanooga's police and residents are not always on the same page.

Even as Chattanooga's new police chief champions neighborhood-based policing, an independent six-month study of the police department reveals that many community members believe police officers are disconnected from some of the neighborhoods in which they work.

Yet most police officers believe they're doing a good job engaging the community, the review by the International Association of Chiefs of Police found.

"Our study determined that there is a disconnect between the beliefs of CPD personnel and certain segments of the community regarding the level of police engagement with citizens," the study reads.

Community members said they were concerned that multiple police officers seem to confront one or two people about noncriminal activities, the study reported. And the department's "park and walk" program -- when officers park their cars and walk a neighborhood on foot -- was seen as especially divisive, according to the review.

Overall, the public still supports the police department and believes police officers can effectively reduce crime.

"However, deliberate and calculated corrective actions are needed by the CPD to improve this belief," the study's authors wrote, adding later, "Based on our observations, we believe that the CPD must reorient its focus, and to a large degree, its culture."

Newly sworn police Chief Fred Fletcher hopes he can spark that cultural change in the department, he said in an interview with the Times Free Press last week. One of his primary goals as chief is to create an "extroverted" police force that listens to neighborhoods and responds to each area's unique problems. That's what he calls neighborhood policing.

He said he intends to "shake the snow globe" very soon after he appoints his executive staff.

"One phrase I hate is, 'because that's the way we've always done it,'" he said. "We may do it that way, but we'll do it that way because that's the best way to do it."

Fletcher has his own ideas about creating community policing, like starting public safety academies at some of the city's most at-risk high schools. Police officers could teach college-credit courses in at-risk high schools to mentor students and expose them to the idea of police work as a career.

But, he adds, he doesn't want to come in with too many predetermined ideas. Rather, Fletcher hopes officers and community members will offer their own ideas. And some communities are already happy with police officers' involvement in the neighborhood.

Garnet Chapin, president of the Northside/Cherokee Community Association, said he's been pleased with the effort of police in his area.

"I think they've tried hard in an area that has some issues," he said. "Whenever they're invited to the neighborhood meetings they come, and they post to our Facebook page when something has been going on in the neighborhood. I have to give them an A."

And one thing Fletcher has noticed about Chattanooga is the pride people have in their neighborhood, he said. And that is encouraging.

"I come from a city that has less crime per capita than here," he said. "But their troubled and struggling neighborhoods don't physically look as good as the neighborhoods here. Even though people have issues with education and poverty, they have pride in their neighborhood, and you can see it. That's part of what got me started thinking about neighborhood policing."

Fletcher's first day as chief will be June 25.

Contact staff reporter Shelly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or with tips or story ideas.