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New chattanooga Police Chief Fred Fletcher plans to lead by example.
He wears comfortable, well-worn walking shoes. No mirror-finish patent leather for Fred Fletcher. While he maintains a picture-perfect uniform, it’s also very functional. “Distances seem smaller and problems seem smaller when you’re face-to-face,” he says. And to get that face time, he does a lot of walking. Whether it be inside the office at police headquarters or out in the community with those he protects, Chattanooga’s new chief of police plans to put many more miles on those shoes.
The search for the Scenic City’s new top cop began months ago when Mayor Andy Berke advertised both inside the department and externally for someone with specific qualities.He wanted someone who had a knowledge of the underlying principles of the Violence Reduction Initiative (VRI). He also wanted someone interested in community policing and engaged conversation. His choice would also be someone who could build a diverse and dynamic force. “Fred Fletcher suits that criteria perfectly,” Berke says. “He has a background of tremendous success when it comes to utilizing the principles of focused deterrence.”
Fletcher was one of 77 qualified candidates from 24 states and the District of Columbia who passed a battery of tests and vetting by a blue-ribbon panel of Chattanoogans before being offered the position.
And Fletcher vetted Chattanooga as well. He had visited the city once before, staying overnight on his way to the FBI Academy at Quantico, Virginia. His view of the city from his motorcycle seat was memorable enough that he found himself noticing photos and articles on Chattanooga in various media.
In fact, Fletcher says Chattanooga has a familiar feel. “I really, really fell in love with Austin [Texas] when it looked more like Chattanooga does today,” Fletcher says, noting similarities between the two. His former boss believes that will serve him—and our community—well. “What Fred brings is having the knowledge of what happens to a city and the challenges as it grows,” says Chief Art Acevedo, of the Austin Police Department. “I think he’s a perfect fit.”
Acevedo flew to Chattanooga from Austin to participate in Fletcher’s swearing-in ceremony. That’s not something a former boss usually does, but their relationship is one of great respect and admiration. “As a leader, he needed to know a little bit about everything,” says Acevedo, “So nobody could pull the wool over his eyes. And one thing about Fred, he’s wicked smart.”
For the last few years, Fletcher had been a commander of a portion of the Austin Police Department with as many officers as the entire Chattanooga Police Department. During the last three years, Fletcher’s biggest success story was the taming of a multi-generational open-air drug market on the east side of town. He describes the neighborhood of 12th Street and Chicon as something out of the the ’80s cop drama “Colors.”
He and his team tried saturation patrols, walking beat patrols and Weed & Seed programs, but nothing helped. That is, until they learned of David Kennedy’s Focused Deterrence Strategies. Kennedy is a criminologist who developed the program in Boston in the 1990s. It has since been successfully utilized in Minneapolis, Stockton, California and Baltimore.
“It’s innovative,” says Fletcher of focused deterrence, “but what it really has is a sort of a Rockwellian concept of policing, which is that police officers are most concerned about what offends that neighborhood.” Fletcher goes on to explain that the officers learn what offends a particular neighborhood by talking to its citizens—not an easy task in the inner city where police have had difficulty getting bystanders to speak up following incidents of violence. Fletcher says it’s up to him and his officers to start the ball rolling by garnering some early success on their own, then showing the community that it’s working.
“These problems didn’t get here overnight, they’re not going to be fixed overnight,” says the chief. Fletcher insists that once citizens see progress, they will get “on board” with the idea. “VRI will have an impact, and it’s going to be integral to the way we customize neighborhood and community policing for Chattanooga,” he says, “which is identifying the people who are offending the community and being police officers on the doorsteps of those actors and the people who are offended by them.”
Here’s where those comfortable walking shoes re-enter the picture. “You literally go show up on their doorstep and [knocking on the table as though it were a door], you say, ‘Hi, I’m Officer Fletcher. I know who you are, the community knows what you’re doing...we all insist that you stop it. If you don’t stop it, we are going to come at you with everything we have.’” At this point, the normally amiable Fletcher’s face grows hard lines and his blue eyes turn steely with determination, a determination that comes from years of life experience.
“I learned you can do a lot more than you think you can,” the chief explains about his attitude. He tells the story of how he joined the Marines with a promise of jet school. “I wanted to be a naval aviator.” Fletcher, an admitted “former fat kid,” lost 45 pounds in order to join the USMC. But he lost the weight on crash diets and showed up for officer’s candidate school missing much-needed body mass. “I found that attitude really got me through there,” he says of OCS, “not my physical abilities, not my skills.”
He says he also learned a lot about leading by example. “When we’d go on our runs, we’d go in PT (physical training) gear. Our platoon sergeants would run in boots and utes (utility uniforms), and if we’d go across a bridge, they’d go down through the creek or river.” He remembered that when he took over Austin’s Police Training Academy years later. “I made a commitment that I would...every time my cadets ran, I would run.” he says. “Sometimes it meant running three times a day, and sometimes it meant that I forgot my running shoes and I had to run on the track in bare feet.”
Bad eyesight would mean no flight school and a very short military career, but Fletcher took what he learned about leadership and put it to good use, applying, twice, for the Austin Police Department. Before that, with an accounting degree from the University of Texas, he worked for a few years in one of the largest accounting firms in the nation. But it wasn’t what he wanted.
The same passion for public service that made him want to join the Marine Corps kicked in again. He sees that same dedication in many of the uniformed officers here in Chattanooga. “At the risk of sounding corny,” Fletcher says, “these officers really do see it as a mission to help the people they serve. And that’s very attractive to someone who’s committed their life to public service.”
So now we have a motivated leader who leads by example and a force of hundreds of officers wanting to make a difference. Fletcher plans to integrate all that emotion with a proven method of handling violent crime in inner cities. Accountability, he says, goes both ways. He says he plans to build trust in the communities he serves “telling people what you can and can’t do and then following up on your promises.” He knows his officers are behind him on this. “There’s a lot of pride in this city,” he notes, “and the police department really reflects that.”
Making the VRI work is only the first (although very large) item on his to-do list. Chief Fletcher has many more ideas for making Chattanooga a safer, more enjoyable place to live. Some of those include increased use of technology in this, the Gig City. He tells The Pulse that the city has already ordered license plate scanners that will allow checking for stolen vehicles without having to stop the driver first.
Another bit of technology on the board will be fingerprint scanners in the patrol cars. Now officers will no longer need to “cuff-and-stuff” a suspect and bring them to the jail for confirmation of their identity.
Fletcher quipped at his swearing-in ceremony that his “superpower” is “talking.” Pressed for an explanation, he says, “I think one of the areas we can improve internally and externally at Chattanooga PD is communication.” He says officers need to be able to share crime data internally and with the community members. Only by keeping the lines of communication open and free flowing will all parties know what the status is of fighting crime in the city.