Police Chief Fred Fletcher explains why it doesn’t have to happen here
Last year around this time, The Pulse introduced you to a young-ish, blue-eyed career lawman wearing comfortable shoes with which he planned to hit the ground running. Perhaps no one knew at the time how apt that analogy would be. Chief Fred Fletcher not only runs the Chattanooga Police Department, he runs marathons and rides bikes, and visits the neighborhoods he and his officers are sworn to protect.
Those communities have seen much transpire over the last 12 months. Despite the appearance of an uptick in violence, the numbers actually reflect the opposite. Seemingly every day the news media report another shooting or other violent crime being committed in our city. Yet, year-to-date, compared with 2014, shootings are down more than 15 percent. When you factor in the involvement of known gang members, the percentage goes up. Property crimes are down 8 percent and robberies decreased by 18 percent. Overall, total crime is 7.4 percent behind last year’s numbers.
The real story here is when you get behind the numbers and look into why Chattanooga is becoming a safer place to live. “I just try to get to know everybody as much as I can,” explains Captain Brian Cotter during a recent ride-along. “Once you get to know people, they point out who the trouble-makers are.” In that one sentence, Cotter succinctly explains the premise of “Community Policing,” one of the three “pillars” of Chief Fletcher’s approach to fighting crime. “It used to be, you came through [Wilson Street] there was somebody standing on every other street corner slinging dope,” Cotter admits. “Now at least they know they have to hide it.” While on the surface that may not sound like a rousing success story, it’s an indication that the criminal element is on alert that police will not stand for brazen acts that offend the general public.
“For the last several months and going forward, every morning we run a report of shots-fired calls from the night before,” says Fletcher. “And the next day we expect patrol officers to go out to the neighborhoods where those shots were fired, get out of their cars and engage community members.” Fletcher explains that this lets the public know the officers are aware of the problem and gives residents an opportunity to give police information which may help in locating the offenders. Fletcher says the preponderance of information coming in from citizens is helping law enforcement piece together patterns and make more effective arrests.
It’s a policy and way of doing business that the rank and file cop on the beat can get behind…now. “I think when the officers see it’s important to the boss, some of them that were kind of on the fence, not really into it, will get that nudge to start doing something,” confesses Cotter. He says once the officers start interacting more with the public, they actually like it. This old Andy Taylor-style of police work may seem low tech, but it actually falls under the moniker “Intelligence-Led Policing,” the second pillar of Fletcher’s crime-fighting philosophy. That’s because the officers now turn in all the information they gather on the streets and a team of highly-skilled analysts comb through the data and find patterns in the chaos. This leads to a more focused approach to getting the bad guys, which brings us to Fletcher’s third pillar, “Focused Deterrence.”
“I think it’s the antidote to most of the criticisms other departments have had about oppressive tactics like ‘stop-and-frisk’ and over-saturations and over-policing,” Fletcher explains about Focused Deterrence. “You give me enough cops in a small enough area and I can eliminate all crime. But you also cause other problems,” the chief explains. “What’s the old saying, ‘an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind?’” The chief is talking about officers being more selective in the actions they take. Instead of sweeping dragnets that often pull in innocent (or less-than-guilty) participants, his officers use information to find the main offenders and get them off the streets. But don’t think law enforcement is going soft.
“There’s a lot of enforcement. It’s not a touchy-feely effort,” says Fletcher, emphatically making a point. “When we think you are a gang or group member who endangers our community, we’re going to do everything we can to get you off the street.” And yet the CPD is doing that all while making fewer arrests. Overall, arrests are down 20 percent in the city. Chattanooga has an arrest rate about half of comparable cities in Tennessee.
Fletcher gives the example that if a large “bust” happens to net a few individuals who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, it could start a chain reaction. “That person is now in jail. He misses work, loses his job, now they’re not able to make child support payments…you can see where this is going,” says Fletcher.
“We have police officers who were social workers, liberal arts majors, that are pastors, that were missionaries, that come from a background of truly wanting to serve their community,” boasts Fletcher. He says his officers really care about doing their job in an effective manner that puts the least amount of stress on the general populace.
“Today I’m proud to say that we haven’t had a Ferguson,” says James Moreland, an East Chattanooga resident, implying there’s no animosity toward police. “We haven’t had a Baltimore. And I think a lot of work goes into it.” Sitting on his front porch with a view of Lookout Mountain, Moreland sweeps his hand across the air as if to flamboyantly introduce me to his neighborhood. “[Chief Fletcher] is doing a good job pushing and encouraging his officers to learn how to work in partnership with the community.”
That word “partnership” comes up a lot when talking to the chief as well. When the subject of Ferguson or Baltimore comes up, he educates you on how planning can prevent these scenarios. “When you respond to something, it looks like a Band-Aid,” Fletcher explains, “When you create something, a relationship, a program, a philosophy, when you don’t need to do it, people accept it as something that’s good on its own merit. The key to not being a ‘Ferguson’ is to not respond, but to be proactive and develop relationships and the philosophies and the programs before those issues arise in your community.”
Back in July 2009, Chattanoogans were “reacting” to a disturbing scene. Six Chattanooga police officers arrived on the scene to find a man holding a rifle to his chin, threatening suicide. Friends and relatives of the man tried for hours to get him to put the gun down. A street sweeper saw the man walking around the neighborhood with the weapon and called police. Within five minutes of their arrival, the six officers fired 59 bullets from a distance of between 10 and 15 feet, hitting Alonzo Heyward 43 times. The incident created a firestorm of controversy, involving everyone from politicians to civil rights groups to average citizens asking why such force was needed. Lessons learned from the resulting investigation were implemented in future training for all officers.
While this was long before Fletcher came to town, the chief explains an analogy he often uses in which he brings a plate into a room and proceeds to tell the people in the room the “history” of the plate and how it is a family heirloom, passed down through the generations—then he smashes it with a hammer. He hands the group the pieces, along with glue and tape and asks them to put it back together. Of course the result is less than perfect, which is what leads Fletcher to the moral of the story: “You can rebuild trust, but it’ll never look the same, it will never work the same, it will be a lesser version of what it was.”
The CPD is still putting that plate back together, and there’s still much work to be done, but progress is being made. Take, for example, a recent home invasion. “Officers responded to a home invasion/burglary in progress,” details Fletcher. “The homeowner had fired shots at the bad guy, bad guy is running, police officers are chasing him, officers see the bad guy with a gun.” The chief pauses for effect. “They take him into custody with no use of force.” He goes on to illustrate how officers in his command are using discretion in their use of force. “In 2014, my officers took 702 guns off the street,” he recounts. “They put themselves between community and a gun to get it off the streets. Seven hundred and two times without the use of deadly force.”
Is that alone going to completely fix trust issues between the public and the law? Only time will tell. The chief refers to a poster concerning Ultra Running that says “Relentless Forward Progress.”
“I run these stupid races,” says Fletcher, laughing, “50 miles, 100 K's…and people ask me how to run a 50-mile race. I say ‘You don’t. You run 50 one-mile races.’ And the key to doing them is just always keep moving.”
It looks like the chief is planning on putting a lot more mileage on those comfortable shoes.