In the idealistic Americana paintings of Norman Rockwell, police were seen as community minders and menders. But not all communities look like those paintings. And not all police departments — particularly Chattanooga's — reflect our communities.
That fact has become all the more problematic in the year since George Floyd's murder by a Minneapolis officer. With that stark image of an officer's knee on Floyd's neck, American policing has become as polarizing as politics at large — spurring calls for police reform, even "defunding" the police.
Those defunding calls are misguided, but they do contain a grain of renewed opportunity for reform.
"Pretty clearly, if you look around the country, [defunding] doesn't work. I think it's very unhelpful language anyway," Chattanooga's new mayor, Tim Kelly, told the Times Editorial Page last week. "I do think we're quite serious about looking at alternate models of crisis response. So 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."
In fact, Kelly says his budget-in-progress will contain more funding for police — primarily for pay increases to recruit, retain and fully staff the 500-person department that now is only at about 300 and change.
Trust-building between police and the community is all-important. And these days it must be more than talk. Kelly is clear about the fact that the police department can't just make nice promises. "It must look like the community," he says.
(READ MORE: Check out a Q&A with Mayor Tim Kelly at timesfreepress.com/kelly)
That tattered, long-promised goal got a boost recently with the last police academy cadet class.
"They finally had a composition that looked like the community," Kelly said. "But we're determined that we take a more intentional approach to diversity, particularly African-Americans and people of color in upper ranks If that means approaching recruiting in a different way so be it."
Making the goal is now all up to Kelly and the city's next police chief. With 25 years in uniform, Chattanooga Chief David Roddy is retiring at the end of July. Kelly expects the city to hire a national search firm by September. From then, the search will likely take another three to four months.
Why the wait? Because a lot of big cities have similar searches going on in the aftermath of Floyd, last summer's protests and COVID-19.
"And we're all looking for essentially the same person," Kelly said. "This is not an easy job."
But he's optimistic, noting that both former Chattanooga chiefs, Fred Fletcher and Roddy, left of their own accord, and the city is "not in a dumpster fire" of discord. A good chief candidate, looking for a good place to call home and make a career, can find it here.
"We stand a great chance to sort of out-punch our weight and get a really great chief," Kelly said. "And it could be somebody local, too. Certainly this [search] is not precluding local candidates."
As for reform, Chattanooga has already seen some under both Fletcher and Roddy.
Understanding that trust is the most valuable commodity a community and its police can have, both chiefs made inroads. Fletcher added a new 50-hour course to the police academy — immersion training to help new cadets meet, see and understand different community cultures.
Roddy, after the Floyd killing, tweeted: "There is no need to see more video. There[sic] no need to wait to see how 'it plays out'. There is no need to put a knee on someone's neck for NINE minutes. There IS a need to DO something. If you wear a badge and you don't have an issues with this turn it in." Then as protesters hit the streets here, Roddy took "conversations" about race — rather than fights and tear gas — into the middle of Frazier Avenue night after night. He even took the conversation to our city council meetings.
That leaves us still struggling with the role, the training, the make-up of police — just as violent crime is said to be rising again.
In 1996, in a joint effort, five Chattanooga Times reporters and three NewsChannel 9 reporters spent the better part of three months reviewing the Chattanooga police personnel files of every active police officer. We went looking because then, as now, police were a lightning rod for negative comments about procedures, practices and professionalism.
What did we find? That the then-mayor and police officials were largely right when they contended that the overall reputation was most often damaged by "a few bad apples." But we also found that procedures to cull out the bad apples were lacking, and some aspects of recruitment and training made the bad apples more likely, as did weak management and a public reluctance to pay more to attract a higher caliber of officer.
Beyond that, however, we also found a lot of good news. In file after file, we found documentation of exceptional performance, of extra kindness, of heroism.
Did the city or the police welcome our effort to document their "bad apple" defense or even their commendations? Not a chance.
But in recent years, this department has been different. We credit that to Andy Berke, Fred Fletcher and David Roddy. We're glad now to hear Mayor Kelly singing from the same choir book. We hope he means it.