I was at an informal gathering the other night when the news swept through the room that the city of Chattanooga had hired a new police chief. I asked Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond, who was standing nearby, if he knew anything about Fred Fletcher, a promising guy from Austin, Tex. The veteran sheriff shook his head but answered, “I would really like to meet him.”
You can bet your last dollar Jim Hammond will approach Fletcher as fast as he can because the top lawman in the county has all but publicly mourned over the fact the sheriff’s office has gotten woefully little cooperation from the Chattanooga Police Department in the years Hammond has turned the sheriff’s department into one of the best in the country.
I happen to believe the incoming Fletcher will inherit a tremendous police department when he assumes office in the coming weeks. City Mayor Andy Berke just boosted the number of officers that will serve the city but already Chattanooga is regarded as one of the best police units in the state. Bobby Dodd, who recently retired, did a wonderful job.
So here’s the sheriff’s rub – the two departments could get a lot more accomplished if they worked together on a list of promising ventures. For instance, Hammond has put together a “Sheriff’s Foundation” that includes the police chiefs from nine communities within Hamilton County. Businessmen in Chattanooga help fund the foundation that, in turn, provides training and other professional opportunities that police departments on Signal Mountain and East Ridge may not get otherwise.
It is a tremendous program but the Chattanooga Police Department has, for whatever reason, never taken part. Hammond is hopeful that Fletcher – described as smart and energetic – will be amenable in working to build better relations between the two departments. “I’ll happily carry the olive branch or do whatever we need to do. It just makes too much sense.”
As Hammond spoke, I watched from across the room to where County Mayor Jim Coppinger and former city mayor Ron Littlefield were having a warm conversation. Anytime two public servants get together, I suspect there is a wealth of information to be shared and Littlefield, who is now doing consulting and speaking to various cities, was a two-term mayor who claims he is still learning about the art of governing people.
“I enjoyed working with Hamilton County,” he said easily while the well-respected Coppinger, who has just finished his first full term, is eager to soak up everything he can. “Communication is vital. I enjoy meeting with Andy (Mayor Berke) and was delighted to be at his ‘State of the City’ meeting this week.” Coppinger said.
Are you kidding me? What appeals to me most about a city-county relationship in law enforcement is that it “strengthen the net.” I realize that the county is an extension of state government while the city operates on a charter but it seems to me if the two cooperated in various ways the people – who all live in the county incidentally – could greatly benefit from such a friendship.
I’m on record with my belief Chattanooga-Hamilton County would greatly benefit from a “home rule” type of governance that Nashville, Memphis and Knoxville have proven is a better method of serving people. There is a huge repetition of services with two separate governments within the same county and – when we can get past our fears – Chattanooga-Hamilton County will save millions of taxpayer dollars.
Combining services, I believe, would make just as much sense as when we combined the city and county school systems. If we could, in turn, plow a lot of the money we would save into our schools the winner would soon be noticeable.
But right now I’ll be content if our police chief and our sheriff can work together as two friends who have a mutual respect for one another. I’ll guarantee the incoming Chief Fletcher his Chattanooga Police Department will be better because of this one thing -- Jim Hammond believes his Sheriff’s Department would greatly benefit from such an association.