Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Chattanooga mayor Tim Kelly speaks during the reopening of the Bessie Smith Cultural Center in Chattanooga on Friday, June 25, 2021.

Last week, Pam Sohn, opinion editor of the Times Editorial Page, interviewed Mayor Tim Kelly about policing and other issues. Here is a transcript, edited for clarity and brevity, of the conversation about policing:


Q: Former Chief Fred Fletcher seeded a lot of neighborhood policing here. David Roddy continued it. What's your take on that kind of policing?

A: I'm an advocate and proponent of that. I got to know Fred pretty well through the course of the campaign ... I did a lot of reading on community policing. And through the literature I came to really appreciate Fred's perspective and dedication to the model.

I wish we had Fred back, to be frank with you. And I've tried to talk him into coming back, and there's a part of Fred I think would love to come back. He and Roddy are very close, and Roddy has done an admirable job of keeping the torch lit. That is very much what we're looking to do.

[On the new police chief search] Fred pointed this out to me: We have a situation here where it's not a dumpster fire, where we have two former chiefs — neither of them have left under protest or conflict ... It's not a situation where we're in this disaster reaction pendulum situation. Rather it is one where we've got great philosophical continuity on which we want to continue, and they will be involved in the search process.

Now, we've had a little bit of pushback from some because they're both white chiefs. And the African-American community [asserts] that we at least try our best to find a chief of color. And I couldn't agree more. But again, the most important thing is to find the best person for the job, who understands that model and is truly dedicated to it. So, that's my intent.

The downside [of our national search] is there are so many searches going on nationally right now, and [our] search really can't began in earnest until September, and the search will take — gosh — three or four months from then. Which is bad news on the one hand, but on the other hand, will give us time to have a very, very thorough, broad and inclusive input process.

(READ MORE: Sohn: Policing is hard. Can we make it better with reform?)

I'm frustrated ... but there are a lot of big cities with search processes going on now, and we're all looking for essentially the same person. But we think that Chattanooga has a great opportunity because if you've got a chief candidate with high emotional intelligence, which is important to me, and is looking for a place that they can really call home and make a career out of, which has been the case certainly with Fletcher and Roddy, Chattanooga has got a great leg up. We stand a great chance to sort of out-punch our weight and get a really great chief. It could be somebody local, too. This is not precluding local candidates. We have a chance to really take that next rung on the ladder.

Q: Is there anything — any policy or program — that you would insist a new chief stick with or introduce?

A: I think the department needs to look like the community. It's tough right now. Recruiting is very, very difficult, particularly in communities of color. I'm not laying that at David's [Roddy's] feet, but I do think the person coming in has got to have a commitment to making sure the department looks like the community. And if that means approaching recruiting in a different way — it almost certainly will — so be it. That's kind of non-negotiable.

Q: There are people in the community who would say — have said — 'Oh, defund the police.' Would you reallocate some police funding? Where are you in the police budget?

A: Pretty clearly, if you look around the country, it [defunding] doesn't work. I think it's very unhelpful language anyway. I do think we're quite serious about looking at alternate models of crisis response. We're figuring out ways that we can look around the country, at other cities' successful models of responding to repeat calls or mental health care crises. I think we have a great opportunity there to do things differently. And that's going to require more resources, not less, but it is probably a reallocation. Again, it's well understood that because of our lack of pay parity, we've got something like 500 sworn officers budgeted but we can't get to that many. We've got 300 and some change. So we're way short already.

The reason [some people want to defund police] is because of concerns with brutality, and we all know the concerns, but we've got to make sure police are compensated fairly enough so that we can retain the best officers. The last thing you want to do is stick to people who can't get work elsewhere. So you'll see that it's a big priority in our budget coming up.

Q: So will funding for police go up?

A: Yes. As it will for fire[fighters], who are actually arguably a little bit worse. And public works. Our retention problems are growing. The stories of people just taking off and going elsewhere are getting to become an epidemic because we're so far behind.

Q: What's the best and worst thing you've seen in the police department since you decided to run for mayor?

A: I've seen some great things! I was so impressed with the way Roddy handled himself during protests last year. What he said and did on Twitter, I thought took tremendous courage. And what I know now about the way some situations were diffused during the protests because of really good police work — spotting people with rocks and backpacks and spotting the guy on the roof with guns — that's just remarkable stuff, and we were damn lucky they did the work they did.

I can't say much negative except that I'm really frustrated about proliferation of guns that we're seeing all over. That's why we reallocated people to a gun unit.

Q: You've mentioned police having a role in recreation centers. You've got officers who are spread thin and not paid very well. How and why should you convince them to take part in the rec centers?

A: You'll see that will be part of our budget. Part of the budget request will be time for them to coach. Some will choose to do it with their volunteer time, but I think we need to actually budget time for them to spend at the rec centers.

Q: What's important that we haven't covered?

A: I would emphasize the fact that we've got a lot of key hires to make. I know people are going to be really focused on this chief of police hire, but there are a lot of other key positions here that are going to be really critical, as we get the table set. Our watchword here is going to go slow to go fast ... We understand the level of anxiety and hope and fear that I hear from community members around this hire in particular is pretty high. We hope this will be the most diverse and inclusive process the city has ever had.

This is a swim, swim, swim, swim upstream and downstream — not just just solve the crime that just happened, but to stop the 100 crimes that lie ahead.