As part of an effort to learn how to best serve their city, the newest batch of Chattanooga Police cadets presented the findings of their community immersion project during a public event at the Camp House on Thursday afternoon.
The 23 cadets were divided into four groups that were tasked with learning more about Chattanooga's African-American, Hispanic, Muslim, intellectually and developmentally disabled and LGBT communities.
The goal of the immersion project, now in its fifth iteration, is to introduce incoming officers to the diversity of the population they will soon be serving. Cadets embed themselves among community members, discussing within those groups what CPD is doing and what it can do in the future to support the myriad demographics represented in Chattanooga.
"People learn better by hearing, seeing, doing and then telling," Chattanooga police chief Fred Fletcher told the cadets before the groups' presentations on Thursday. "This is learning from our community about our community."
He said the lessons that can be gleaned from residents throughout the city are invaluable and often lay the foundation for improved police work and future longterm relationships.
"Diversity is strength. Working with and around people that are different than us makes us better," Fletcher said. "You can't really appreciate people until you have an individual relationship with them."
Many of the cadets said the experience of interviewing and learning from residents was eye-opening and equipped them to hit the ground running after graduation in May.
The first group to present focused on Chattanooga's African-American residents, specifically in the Villages in Alton Park, and were told by residents what they thought the priorities of CPD should be moving forward.
"One of the recurring themes in our project was talking to children when they're young. Whether it's mentoring, education, faith — showing them that there is opportunity out there," said cadet Dan Prada.
"That's something we need to build. We need to build trust," he said. "When we show up in the community, they need to know we're there for them."
Other cadets highlighted the challenge and necessity of understanding cultural differences relevant to the sectors they are tasked with.
One cadet pointed out that in parts of the East Lake community, Latinos make up nearly a third of the population and those residents often bring their own preconceptions and habits with law enforcement to their current community. Looking down and away from an officer while speaking can be an act of deference to authority rather than a sign of disrespect.
Another cadet, Charles Darling, said he was told by residents that officers making an effort to get up and out of their patrol cars to interact with community members, specifically children and business owners, would be hugely positive.
"If we can do the best we can to reach the ones we can reach, it's going to help all of us because we're one community," he said. "All of us are one big family."
Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6731. Follow him on Twitter @emmettgienapp.