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Front Page - Friday, December 23, 2016

Police chief: Community involvement will solve violence problem

Chattanooga Police Chief Fred Fletcher answers questions during a membership meeting at the Greater Chattanooga Association of Realtors last week. - Photograph by David Laprad

Chattanooga Police Chief Fred Fletcher says there are no gang-infested neighborhoods in the city. In fact, the very suggestion that any part of town is crawling with criminals makes him bristle.

“Even in the worst areas of this city, only four-tenths of one percent of the population is causing problems,” he says. “As a Chattanooga police officer, the idea that we have gang-infested neighborhoods offends me because 99.6 percent of the people in any given neighborhood are not perpetrating violence.”

Speaking during a membership meeting at the Greater Chattanooga Association of Realtors last week, Fletcher addressed the issue of neighborhood violence and gangs head-on, responding to concerns by Realtors who say they believe there are areas of the city where violent situations make it too difficult to conduct business.  

The police chief urged Realtors to focus on observable behavior rather than buying into the labels some people have applied to some neighborhoods.

“As Realtors, you often engage with strangers in a strange location, which can be stressful. But the house next door might not have any problems,” he told the group.

“I’ve stood beside dead bodies on porches next to houses occupied by grandmothers and grandfathers who are working two jobs to get by. Instead of worrying about being in a particular neighborhood, pay attention to your circumstances, and if you see behavior that’s intimidating, call the police.”

Despite Fletcher’s assurances, Realtors didn’t back off and continued to express concerns about the level of violence in the city.

Nathan Brown, Keller Williams Downtown Team Leader, was among those who offered a personal experience.

“I ride my bike to work from Missionary Ridge. After a few interesting incidents, I was afraid to cycle five miles into the city,” he said. “How do we get over those fears and pass through those areas instead of backing away from the violence?”

Fletcher countered: “Fear is an individual thing, and I don’t know why you’re afraid, so I don’t have an answer for you. I can tell you I cycle those roads daily and I’m not afraid – and I know more about what’s going on in Chattanooga than you do.”

When Realtor Nickie Schwartzkopf with RE/MAX Properties told the chief a story about a fellow agent who was accompanied into a “sketchy area” by a person with a gun. Fletcher shifted gears to talk about solutions to the problem of violence.

The first step is to stop labeling areas as violent, the chief said, as it perpetuates the issue.

“There tends to be two Chattanoogas: The Chattanooga that doesn’t have to worry about crime and the Chattanooga that’s affected on a daily basis. As you’re meeting with clients, that’s an easy thing to sell. You can say the violence happens there, not here,” Fletcher explained.

“That’s a great marketing, tool but it’s not a great community building tool. When we bifurcate our city into violent and non-violent areas, it takes the incentive to solve the problem off our shoulders. We need to own the problem. It affects our neighbors, so it’s our problem.”

Chief Fletcher said thriving businesses and revitalized neighborhoods do more to ensure public safety than any number of police officers.

“You have 486 cops in Chattanooga. That’s not a lot for a city 144 square miles in size,” he pointed out. “Building active communities where people are engaged with each other and looking out for one another will do more than an infinite number of police officers would.

“If arresting people solved the problems we face in this community, then Chattanooga wouldn’t have any problems because your cops are really good at arresting people. We need to be smarter than that.”

Toss the garage door opener

Fletcher says one of his least favorite things are garage door openers, as they isolate neighbors from each other. On the other hand, front porches are one of his favorite things because they encourage interaction, which builds a sense of community.

“A patrol commander will never know a neighborhood as well as someone who lives there,” he adds. “But if you come home, park in the garage, shut the door and spend the evening in your house, then you won’t get to know your neighbors.

“You won’t know which car belongs in the driveway next door, either, or who should be walking along your street.”

The chief also expressed a fondness for public spaces that allow residents to interact with one another, enabling community-oriented policing and problem solving.

“A business or a green space that allows people to spend time together builds bonds and teaches people about who does and doesn’t belong in a neighborhood,” he says. “When neighbors know their community, they can work together to identify problems and come up with solutions.”

Fletcher adds the people of Chattanooga must also get to know their police officers and commit to working with them to establish solutions to problems.

To this end, the police department launched a Find Your Officer website at www.FindYourOfficer.Chattanooga.gov. Entering a street address brings up the name and email of the patrol commanders for that area.

Fletcher encourages people to use it. “Email your commanders. Tell them you want to get to know them. Make a personal connection,” he said. “Relationships are the key to success. Realtors know that. You don’t sell houses with billboards; you sell houses through referrals.”

Fletcher also encourages people to trust their instincts and contact the police when they see something that causes concern.

“If you feel even moderately fearful, call 911. If it’s a long-term problem, connect with your patrol commander,” he says.

Getting in touch with local police will become even easier next summer, when Fletcher expects the department to launch a mobile application. The program will allow users to view crime data, submit anonymous tips, and send photos of a problem to a patrol commander and more. “We’re committed to building a 21st century police department,” Fletcher explains.

He also encouraged Realtors to get in touch with patrol commanders when they are afraid of spending time at a particular property. “If you want someone with you, call the commander,” he says. “We can’t guarantee you’ll have a personal security detail every time you go somewhere, but if you plan ahead, it’s our job to work with you.”

The job of the police

Fletcher says it’s not just up to the community to create ties; the police department is also responsible for building bridges.

“We have an obligation to get to know this community and learn your priorities,” he points out “It’s not up to us to decide where to expend our efforts in your neighborhoods. We need to find out what’s bothering you.

“That’s going to be [something] different in each community. The things that are bothering the people in Brainerd will be different from the things that are bothering the people in Hixson.”

Despite the disagreements that took place during Fletcher’s talk, the exchanges remained cordial. In the end, the police chief and the Realtors present praised the work of local law enforcement.

“I became a police leader because police officers are my heroes,” Chief Fletcher said. “They go to work every day and expose themselves to things no human being should have to experience.”

“We appreciate how well you’ve represented Chattanooga, especially as it’s been in the national spotlight,” Keller Williams’ Brown said.

“We’re proud to have you as our police chief.”