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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Chattanooga Police Department Chief David Roddy, right, talks to a protestor at Miller Park on Saturday, May 30, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn. People gathered to protest the killing of George Floyd. Floyd, 46, died after being handcuffed and pinned for several minutes beneath Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin's knee.

Though the recent weeks of protests and calls for police reform in Chattanooga took place under Mayor Andy Berke, he has less than a year left in office.

It's his successor who will be tasked with setting the tone for budgeting, policy and any law enforcement reforms in the city.

Among the five candidates who have announced their campaigns for Berke's seat, which is up for election in March, views on the recent "I Can't Breathe" movement and subsequent calls for defunding, divesting from and otherwise reforming the Chattanooga Police Department vary from near agreement to complete opposition.

This week, the Times Free Press asked candidates to share their views on police reform in the city and to address proposals by activists to cut or eliminate the police department's budget and reallocate some responsibilities to non-law enforcement personnel.

 

Monty Bruell

Bruell says he doesn't just want to think outside of the box for police reform, but that he wants to "blow up the whole damn box."

"Long before George Floyd was murdered by the Minneapolis police, before we had the recent Black Lives Matter movement or I Can't Breathe CHA, I've been talking about the need to re-prioritize the entire city budget," Bruell said, noting that he would take a blank-slate approach to restructuring the entire budget, including the police.

"As it specifically relates to the police department, we've got to take a fresh look with a blank sheet of paper about how we provide public safety to the citizens of Chattanooga," Bruell said. "We do not need a militarized police force. We don't need to have our police as an occupying force in low-income neighborhoods."

In addition to reforming the budget and hiring process to avoid over-policing, Bruell said he would use non law-enforcement personnel for non-emergency situations.

"It doesn't make sense to send a person with a gun to investigate a traffic accident or to resolve an issue around someone who has a mental health crisis. I think that's, that's a bad thing to add into that mix," he said, adding that he would also work to address poverty and other contributing factors to crime rates. "I also believe that we have to start looking at the root causes of crime in our community and issues around policing. We've got to do something about the rates of poverty in our Black and brown communities."

But Bruell does not support arbitrary cuts to any department, nor does he support abolishing the police.

"It's popular to say that we want to defund the police. I think that's really bad branding," he said. "I can't tell you whether the police force that I imagine will cost less than the current police force or more than the current police force, because when we start adding training, when we change the way that we hire, when we include more social workers and mental health professionals — I don't know if that's a smaller budget or a larger budget — but what I am committed to doing is totally changing the way we police."

If elected, Bruell said, he will meet with activists and other stakeholders to work on how to best implement reform.

 

Christopher Dahl

Dahl wants to cut the police budget by creating smaller community departments and wants to focus on training to keep police intervention from causing further divides in the community.

"I suggest putting localized or smaller precincts into the community that run out of rec centers," Dahl said when asked about how he would address police budget concerns if elected.

"One of the reasons why I suggested that is because they could rent space from these areas, and that would actually put money back into that community center or rec center and divest from the police department in a way that is not detrimental to anybody's budget," Dahl said. "And that would put [money] where it needs to go, which is in the community, and also the police would need to start taking a different approach. Instead of being a more reactive department where they think, 'I've got to go out to shark the community and find things that are wrong.'"

In response to questions about social workers and other non-law enforcement mediators, Dahl said he supports using them to address mental health and domestic calls. He also wants to make other drastic changes to how those sensitive calls are handled.

"For mental health calls or like domestic disturbance and issues like, we could use social workers or the police," he said. "But we need to change the way we respond to those, because [police] don't take the correct stance on some of these calls they need to have a task force put together. So they can have people on hand 24 hours that can deal with the situation."

Part of the domestic call training Dahl wants to see is a reform to be less biased against males and to preserve relationships when possible.

"A lot of the times even if a lady's the aggressor, the issues get downplayed and it all gets put on the guy here in Chattanooga," Dahl said. "I don't know if that's just what I call the Southern Baptists' approach, where in the church the guy is supposed to have all the responsibility and so on. So police try to be harder on the gentleman in those types of situations."

Dahl said responders should generally handle those calls better because the separation of families is contributing to crime in society in the first place.

"[Police] sort of escalate it to where both parties then end up wanting to separate instead of trying to work things out so they've become, in my opinion, in the business of breaking up family," Dahl said of current domestic dispute response. "And that should never happen because that should never be suggested to break up a family, because that's one of the issues I see wrong with the community."

 

Russell Gilbert

Gilbert wants to reform the police department through clearer, tougher disciplinary policies, rather than making sweeping budget cuts.

"We really have to look at policies first. And if we look at the policy to make sure the policy is correct and fits the community, then we need to look at the consequences behind if [officers] don't follow the policy," Gilbert said, noting that he does not want to leave any gray area on discipline for officers who break the rules.

"I think that if a person, police or whoever it may be, knows where they stand if they break a policy, not having a gray area I think they'll be more reluctant to [violate policy]," Gilbert said, noting he would implement a zero-tolerance policy for some offenses. "Every corporation has certain policies that either come with a verbal or written warning, but you also have policy that says 'if you break this you are automatically terminated.'"

Specifically, Gilbert wants to implement zero-tolerance policies for choke holds or beating citizens once they are in custody.

"Once a person is handcuffed, they are already detained. You don't have to come back and start hitting them and hitting them and hitting them," Gilbert said. "Your job is to handcuff. [It's] not your job to be the juror, and on the job to decide, 'I'm gonna beat you a little bit more because you resisted.'"

While Gilbert would come down hard on policing policy, he said he does not believe that cutting the budget or abolishing police is the way to go.

"I already voted that I was not going to defund the police department. We do need a police department," he said, citing violent crime in the city. "And if you got 500 officers and you say you're going to defund a certain percentage, that just means that some of the ones who need to go and might be causing problems could still all be there and some of the ones you cut might have been good."

To maintain quality officers, Gilbert said, he would require mental health screenings and resources for officers and also mandate they be trained on how to deal with citizens experiencing mental health issues.

 

Tim Kelly

Kelly believes in increasing unarmed personnel for non-emergency situations to de-escalate some policing tactics, but does not believe there should be "punitive" budget cuts in an attempt to reform any department.

"I think there's a lot of sensible police reform that's in order and necessary," he said. "That said, I don't think it has to be disruptive or punitive."

If elected mayor, Kelly said, he will look to trim the fat in any budget, including the police department's, but he will not do so at the expense of law enforcement.

"I've just begun the process of really deeply analyzing that budget, and I'm going to eliminate waste and duplication wherever I can. And if that's in the police department, I would never do that at the expense of public safety, or by reducing the number of officers on the street," he said when asked about the calls to defund or divest from the department.

Kelly does believe there are some roles that unarmed personnel can handle more sensibly than a patrol officer.

"I think there are a lot of jobs that we send policemen to do [that] the policemen are not [the] best fit to do. So I may sound a little naive here, but I think we can have our cake and eat it, too," Kelly said. "I think we can beef up the social work aspects to address the issues police should not be dealing with and let police do what police do best, which is deal with crime."

Kelly also said he would consider emulating programs in other cities that use third parties to address traffic incidents and other non-threatening situations.

"I'm a big fan of things like in Memphis, for example, they use a third-party company to go out and just do traffic accident reporting. No one wants an armed officer there, and no officer wants to go do that. That's not the best use of [police] time," Kelly said. "So, there are some really commonsensical things we can do to reform police and, I think, make everybody happy."

 

Andrew McLaren

McLaren wants to reform the department by strengthening and investing further into police, in hopes of recruiting and retaining better quality officers.

"We need to put more money into the police department," McLaren said. "Our problem is recruiting and retention. A lot of my friends are leaving [the department] because of low pay, and they also need more training."

According to McLaren, who wants to raise every officer's salary by $10,000 if he is elected, the department will not improve until more resources are poured into training.

"So people say we want more de-escalation training. Well, guess what, a lot of the same people that are saying that are also about taking money from the police department," he said. "They want to take money but want higher standards."

McLaren also believes that police are dissatisfied in their jobs because they feel "neutered" by some intervention policies.

"Most of the cops I talk to in Chattanooga feel that they've been neutered, and they have their hands tied behind their backs," he said, specifically citing the more aggressive tack of Tennessee Highway Patrol and Hamilton County Sheriff's Office personnel during the June protests.

"They felt that [the Chattanooga police] sort of had to be submissive for optics and for the narrative that was in the department of being very submissive with the protesters," McLaren said, noting he would have issued arrest warrants for protesters for "doxxing and threatening" police officers.

"With the kneeling, the dealing with the people spitting on you and threatening your family they just felt like this is a very, like, submissive stance that [Chattanooga police have] taken," McLaren, who said previously he would fire any officer seen kneeling at a protest, said. "A lot of people think that that is a political statement when you are basically doing something to back up Black Lives Matter, that's aligned with the Democratic Party."

McLaren also disagrees with non-law enforcement personnel responding to calls of any kind, because he said a situation could turn violent and require a police presence.

Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at staylor@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.

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