Opinion: Chattanooga Police Department survey results need not be end of the story

Staff File Photo By Matt Hamilton / An internal survey says some members of the Chattanooga Police Department may not be happy with the squad's executive leadership, which is led by Police Chief Celeste Murphy.
Staff File Photo By Matt Hamilton / An internal survey says some members of the Chattanooga Police Department may not be happy with the squad's executive leadership, which is led by Police Chief Celeste Murphy.

Is an internal survey that shows Chattanooga police officers are dissatisfied with the department leadership something to worry about?

Well, yes and no.

Anytime leadership of a government agency or department, school or business is found to be unsatisfactory by their respective employees, it is concerning.

The Times Free Press, from information obtained through an open records request, published results from a survey Sunday that showed the police department also scored low on communication and recognizing officers for good work.

Questions from the survey should immediately arise: Why is the dissatisfaction there? How long has it been there? Can things be improved? What happens if it doesn't improve?

We hope Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly and Police Chief Celeste Murphy are pondering all of those questions and others as they sift through the responses from the survey commissioned by the mayor's office.

On the other hand, some of the dissatisfaction could be present for the same reasons it would be present if a popular boss, director or manager were replaced with someone from the outside who brings in a different leadership style and dynamic.

(Twenty-six-year Chattanooga Police Department veteran David Roddy, who had been police chief for four years, retired — some say not of his own volition — in 2021. Today, he is chief operating officer for Hamilton County under Mayor Weston Wamp.)

A lot of people don't like change of any kind. It takes time for new ways of operating to settle in.

The results also could be influenced by the fact just over a third of the department completed the survey and that, as Murphy told the Times Free Press, the results are "not indicative of the entire department."

Experts will tell you that people unhappy about something are more likely to complain than those who are satisfied. How many online survey results, after all, have you filled out when Zaxby's gave you Coke, not the Dr Pepper you ordered, or when Burger King gave you a Bacon Croissan'wich when what you wanted was the one with sausage?

What are disconcerting, though, are Kelly's comments in an internal memo about rank-and-file officers "just never going to accept a Black woman in that role," and Murphy's dismissal of the results as being not indicative of the entire department.

Kelly's absolutist statement glosses over the fact the department has in the past had a handful of Black police chiefs and numerous high-ranking women.

A statement released by the chapter president of the Fraternal Order of Police Rock City Lodge, representing about 300 CPD officers, also took the comment to task: "It is a dismissal of the concerns of the Fraternal Order of Police and is a failure to take extreme ownership of the situation."

Meanwhile, Murphy glossing over the survey results is not likely to endear her to those wary of her leadership abilities. Some in the department and the general public already have looked askance at her restructuring the department similar to that of the Atlanta department where she previously worked and adding a layer of higher-paid upper management that some department members say is unneeded.

Further, in 2022, the year she was hired, the number of internal grievances filed at the department tripled from the two years before, according to city records.

The CPD survey, in the information obtained by the newspaper, depicted no areas as "excellent," several areas on the low end of "all good," the aforementioned three areas (recognition, executive leadership and communication) in the poorer end of the "check engine" category and nothing in the "urgent action" area. It also showed some strengths of the department as relationships, purpose and empathy.

In light of the results, Ryan Ewalt, the mayor's chief operating officer, said Kelly and his leadership team have full confidence in Murphy, and Murphy — despite deflecting that "a lot of these things didn't start with me" — said she was open to any recommendations from the survey. And the International Brotherhood of Police Officers President Ed Buckman said the current leadership team has "the potential for success" but "can't do it in a vacuum."

So, while the survey results are not an all-encompassing picture of the CPD, the mayor's office thought enough of them that it is continuing to provide training and leadership "for all leaders at CPD." The results, though, are important enough — especially given Kelly's absolutist memo and Murphy's comments — that they deserve a follow-up — perhaps every six months or a year — to be sure the overall situation is improving (or not).