Earlier this year, the Chattanooga Police Department announced it had reached its goal for the racial demographics of its cadet academy to mostly reflect those of the city's population. Chattanooga Police Chief David Roddy said he's extremely encouraged by the recruiting numbers and agrees with other community members that more work needs to be done.
The 24-cadet class, including five women, is 54% white, 34% Black and 8% Hispanic or Latino, according to data provided by the department. As of July 2019, U.S. Census Bureau data shows Chattanooga's population is 62% white, 31% Black and 6% Hispanic or Latino.
Roddy said the biggest contributor to reaching the department's goals has been maintaining a personal relationship with applicants.
"The one thing that we started doing in recent years that we felt has given us our biggest return on investment is making sure that we keep a personal connection with individuals," Roddy said. "What we want applicants to understand is that we want you to work here. If you have a desire to support and serve your community, keep them safe and have a meaningful relationship and connection with members of our community, then we want you to be a Chattanooga police officer."
Building a police force that reflects its community has long been a goal — and a struggle — for the department. It has tried a number of methods to bridge that gap over the years, including visiting universities, attending job fairs and personal recommendations with cash incentives.
Since 2016, the department's Each One Reach One initiative funded by a $10,000 grant from the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga offers $500 to each person who refers a minority candidate, when that candidate starts the police academy. After paying out $1,000 for recruits in this year's academy, $1,300 will still be up for grabs.
The historical tension between police and communities of color is well documented in America as well as Chattanooga. Roddy has acknowledged that in the past and said this week there is documented, scientific research that says it is advantageous to have similarities between law enforcement and the community it serves.
"Those similarities can be in gender, race, ethnicity, religion or upbringing," he said. "It's all a shared experience. It doesn't necessarily have to be drawn across those lines, but for a police department to look and be able to connect with its community is of utmost importance to us."
Candy Johnson, the new president of the Urban League of Greater Chattanooga, said having a diverse recruitment class is a good first step in the direction of creating a better relationship between the community and its police force.
"Diversity is that first step, and then we've got to work on that inclusion in both the leadership and the patrol officers," Johnson said. "How do we go to that next level and ensure that we are inclusive in the ranks with race, gender, life experience and cultural background so that when we're dealing with all communities we bridge that gap that may be there when you don't have that representation."
Roddy said the pandemic resulted in a number of challenges when it came to hiring a new cadet class. He also said it will take time to fully assess from a community perspective just how consequential high unemployment and, at times, a high crime rate, will affect the city.
"We're still very early into understanding how much COVID-19 affected us all," he said. "You can say that crime rose because of the pandemic, or was it because of certain changes in human behavior? Or is it because of stressors? Or the way school was done?"
Another challenge Roddy and many police departments are facing around the country is the negative national conversation about law enforcement.
Major Kelvin Dingle, the operations commander at the Morehouse School of Medicine's public safety office in Atlanta, went viral this week for his rant on how tired he is of people "polarizing the fact that maybe law enforcement is just not a good thing."
"I'm tired. I am so ... tired. I wake up every morning and kiss my family goodbye, knowing there's a possibility I won't come home," Dingle said in the video. "All of us are not bad. I am not as they are. Most of us are not. There are bad people in every career. I am so ... tired, tired, tired."
In June, a 10-year veteran police officer in Winchester, Tennessee, announced his resignation in a video posted on social media where he cited an increasingly negative view of law enforcement.
Roddy said those are real concerns people have when thinking about becoming an officer.
"You [combine] that with the pandemic, you have a high unemployment rate, individuals seeking employment but you also have very tough conversations revolving around social justice and police reform and some individuals may not be as likely or driven to become a police officer," he said.
Currently, of the department's sworn officers, 13% are Black and 3% are Hispanic or Latino. Fewer than 1% are Asian, compared to 3% of the city's population.
Contact Patrick Filbin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6476. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickFilbin.