Fred Fletcher's first year as chief marked by change

Fred Fletcher's first year as chief marked by change

June 7th, 2015 by Shelly Bradbury in Local Regional News

Chattanooga Police Chief Fred Fletcher talks to officers before a briefing on the first day of the Riverbend Festival at Ross's Landing in Chattanooga.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

POLL: Has Fred Fletcher earned your trust?

The day Fred Fletcher was sworn in as Chattanooga's new police chief, he said he wanted to shake the snow globe.

And he did.

Since taking the oath one year ago this week, Fletcher has pushed change after change at the police department -- from revamping the promotion process and adjusting training to changing the way officers respond to victims of violent crime.

Many of the changes were designed to push Fletcher's philosophy of policing: a culture of "community policing" that revolves around problem-solving and relationships more than arrests.

It's a philosophy Fletcher's consistently pushed, and one of the major reasons he got the job. A year in, many community leaders believe the relationship between the police department and residents has improved dramatically.

But Fletcher's changes aren't just limited to the department's relationship with civilians. Within the department, he's cracked down on misconduct -- firing as many people in 2015 as were terminated in all of 2012, 2013 and 2014 combined -- and he's started to change the way officers are hired, fired and promoted.

Not all community members think Fletcher's community policing has made a difference, and not all officers agree with the discipline decisions he's made. But no one can deny that Fletcher is a man of action.

"As soon as he got here he started getting things done," said Capt. Brian Cotter. "For a long time, we were just kind of treading water. We had just been in limbo, waiting -- we needed some direction and he's given us that for sure."

COMMUNITY POLICING

The idea that police should do more than answer calls has been Fletcher's mantra from the beginning.

Fletcher promised to get officers out of their patrol cars to talk to people, figure out what the community's problems are and fix them. He pushed officers to go beyond arrests.

"The problem might be that you have a vacant house with furniture in the front yard where people come hang out, drink, do drugs and get in fights," Fletcher said. "So the violence and crime is what is offending the community, but arresting all those people night after night after night doesn't solve the problem. What solves the problem is taking the furniture out of the yard so there is not a place for them to congregate and condemning the house that is uninhabitable."

Officers have solved problems like that many times in the last year, Fletcher said. In May, the department shut down a brothel after a tip from community members, and in February, police arrested 13 people on drug and prostitution charges after receiving complaints from residents. Fletcher said he hears about similar problems daily.

"When people feel comfortable coming to us with their problems and complaining about problems, working together to address problems, I consider that a success," Fletcher said.

Some local residents say relationships with police have improved dramatically since Fletcher took office. The chief's easy charisma and outgoing personality quickly won over much of the Chattanooga community, city leaders and residents say.

"He's done a great job at community outreach and trying to encourage the community at large to be more involved," said Gary Ball, a neighborhood leader in Ridgedale.

"I don't have anything but high marks for him," said City Councilman Chip Henderson. He was among some council members who wanted to hire a chief from Chattanooga, but Fletcher's performance has changed his mind.

Councilman Moses Freeman thinks Fletcher's approach has eased tensions and perhaps even prevented violence between residents and police.

"I hear a lot of people who say that the things that are happening in other parts of the country, like Ferguson, aren't happening here now because we think the police department has gotten Chief Fletcher's message on how to approach and how to deal with citizens," he said.

Louise Hammonds, president of the Oak Grove Neighborhood Association, said she was thrilled when Fletcher stopped by her house shortly after he took office.

"Not only did he stop at my house and have coffee, but there was a family on the corner having a cookout and he also stopped there and had a bite with them," she said.

But, she added, she hasn't had a similar interaction with another officer since. That highlights one of the challenges of community policing: finding a way to give patrol officers who are already swamped with calls the extra time required to build positive relationships.

"The dilemma for officers on the street is that the expectation is if I work a particular section of the city, I need to answer all the calls in that area of the city," said Sean O'Brien, Fraternal Order of Police Rock City Lodge 22 president. "But on the other hand, there is this expectation that you will engage the community and find solutions to some of those problems. Well, it's extremely difficult to do both."

Fletcher has taken a few steps to address that resource issue, he said. In East Chattanooga, officers are testing a new 10-hour shift schedule instead of the usual eight-hour shift. The longer day means that for a few hours each night -- and all night once a week -- two full teams of officers are working at the same time, in the same area.

Fletcher is hoping the extra manpower will give officers the latitude to step away from their radios and focus on more proactive work, he said.

He's also asked the City Council to fund a handful of new police officers in the upcoming budget to serve purely as community liaisons.

Meanwhile, officers just have to make the time for community policing, Cotter said.

"What I've been telling the guys is that when you do get the rare chance to do something good, you need to jump on it and take it," Cotter said. "Because you're not always going get chances to get to know people. You need to take the initiative to create chances, because most of the time, patrol officers will be answering calls."

DISCIPLINE

Fletcher's first year also has been marked by high-profile officer misconduct and firings.

The chief took a more strict and transparent approach to discipline than previous chiefs, officers say. In 2006, an officer who pleaded guilty to an off-duty DUI received an unpaid 14-day suspension. This year, Fletcher fired former detective David Catchings, who was charged with drunken driving and domestic assault.

The chief also fired detective Karl Fields after a woman accused him of making sexual advances while he was investigating her alleged rape. And a third man, Kevin Kincer, resigned before he could be fired after pills went missing from the evidence room he was supposed to be monitoring.

In January, the chief gave Officer Alex Olson the department's maximum 30-day suspension for firing at suspects who were fleeing in a car. Olson is appealing the decision.

"It's safe to say it's gotten everyone's attention," O'Brien said.

In 2013, the CPD's internal affairs division investigated 58 allegations of misconduct and found the officer was at fault in just four instances -- about 6 percent of allegations. In 2014, the numbers were similar: 73 allegations and six sustained.

But so far in 2015, internal affairs has investigated 20 allegations and sustained eight -- 40 percent.

Cotter said most officers he's spoken with support the tough discipline.

"I think it's important to have strong discipline," he said. "Because in general, when an officer goes out and gets in trouble, he is representing all of us. If we can get rid of people like that, we want to do it."

But some officers worry that the fear of discipline could give them pause in the field when making second-by-second decisions about whether to use deadly force.

"It's a concern generally on stuff like this," O'Brien said. "Does it negatively impact the officer on the street to where they hesitate and they don't do what they need to do to stay safe?"

Fletcher said the department has high standards for when deadly force is appropriate.

"I've had guns pointed at me and I've had my hammer back more times than I care to recall," he said. "It is a difficult, difficult decision. I will absolute support my officers when they use deadly force to protect themselves or the community."

While discipline and misconduct used to be a fairly private proceeding at the police department, Fletcher has opened it up and shared the discipline process for individual officers with the department as a whole, officers said. The lack of privacy has irked some officers but pleased others.

Fletcher said officers complained to him about the lack of transparency around discipline soon after he started as chief.

"They said, 'How am I supposed to know what is expected of me if I don't know what other officers did and got in trouble for?'" Fletcher said. "Officers have a right to know. It's public information. We're sharing it with the public -- it would be hypocritical and negligent if we didn't share it with our own officers."

GOING FORWARD

With his first year as chief behind him, Fletcher has no intention of slowing down in year two.

The department has launched several new divisions, including a crime analysis unit and a special victims unit.

Fletcher also hopes to roll out formal training in community policing for officers and supervisors. So far, only captains have been specially trained in community policing basics, he said.

He's planning to create a uniform, stage-by-stage training for officers and expects the process to take the better part of a year. He'd also like to recruit new officers to help the department's force better reflect the racial diversity of the city.

It's a marathon for Fletcher, not a sprint.

"It's not making huge strides every single day, but it's about making strides every single day and every single hour," he said. "We're not always going to hit it over the fence, but we are committed to always moving forward."

Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or sbradbury@timesfreepress.com with tips or story ideas.