The Revolving Door Of Police Leadership

Friday, September 10, 2021

Here we go again. I’m speaking of the revolving door of leadership in the Chattanooga Police Department. One only has to review the last 20 years of chiefs to realize the instability of that role.

Save the taxpayers $60,000 and do not hire a head hunter to find the new chief.  First, look at the history of policing in Chattanooga. Whether the chief is an insider or one from another community, the outcome is the same. It doesn’t matter who is the chief, so it may as well be an insider, which seems to be what the community wants. If the recent survey is correct, any chief employed from the outside would be unsuccessful, regardless if he or she appears to be the savior of the department. The person would arrive within a huge disadvantage, suggesting that cooperation would be difficult to acquire. 

One only has to review the circumstances of prior chiefs from outside of Chattanooga. Their tenure was rather brief, just long enough to enhance a resume, and then move on to another position. In recent years, the tenure of chiefs from the pool of Chattanooga insiders is not any better, but at least the city would not have wasted $60,000.    

What is the problem in Chattanooga? Why can’t the city keep a police chief, whether an insider or outsider? Yes, a chief can influence the tone of the environment of a department. That fact alone is not the answer. From so much research in effective policing, the one consistent variable is that there must be mutual trust between the department and the community. This trust does not occur overnight and is part of a comprehensive culture, including all segments of the community.

Rather than rushing to find the “perfect” chief, this is the “perfect” time to begin again, a concept discussed in Dr. Eddie Glaude’s recent book. I noticed that Dr. Glaude will be in Chattanooga next weekend, as the keynote speaker at the Ed Johnson Memorial dedication event. There is so much information available now to explore what works and what doesn’t work in community policing initiatives. Regardless of what thoughts might divide a community, I believe everyone can agree that a community needs peace keepers. I use this term that was highlighted by an interview I conducted with a police chief. He stated, “Things were much better when we were peace keepers," when he first became a police officer, rather than the current label of law enforcers. 

I lived in Chattanooga for the first 50 years of my life, and I have remained significantly connected to the community. During those years, I have experienced the good, the bad, and the ugly of policing in Chattanooga. With those experiences, I have seen the very good, and have had personal and professional relationships with some of the very good, persons who dedicated their lives to keeping all residents safe.

Unfortunately, I have seen the ugly up close and personal, too. These included persons who should have never been employed as police officers, and who have participated in activities that have tainted the good will of others within the department. In full disclosure, my family charged the city of Chattanooga and its police department in a lawsuit for the wrongful death of our son, Leslie. Even so, we did not give up hope for the career of policing to attract the right people as peace keepers. We established the endowed Leslie Vaughn Prater Memorial Scholarship in Criminal Justice at UTC. It is our prayer that students receiving the scholarship will become peace keepers, practicing justice for all.

I know most of you are aware of the statement, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome.” I strongly believe in that. Chattanooga, take your time to deeply investigate policing in Chattanooga. A successful department will require more than who wears the badge of the chief. It will require closely evaluating the persons initially employed as officers, and will not be as simple as recruiting persons from nearby Georgia and Alabama to beef up numbers. Look deeply into why persons are leaving the force, why are suicides a problem in policing, and is there bullying within the police department. Look at your policies for accountability of officer wrongdoing. Explore the effectiveness of departments with a strong union versus departments that are not unionized. Do residents claiming distrust of police officers, do they have concrete reasons?

As implied previously, these matters are very comprehensive, with no easy answers. The easy strategy would be to just pay a search firm $60,000 to bring in an outsider to “take the heat.” One thing is for certain, to address the revolving door in Chattanooga, some measure of change is required. Change is difficult and uncomfortable. The question is, “Is Chattanooga up for the task.”

The theme for the Ed Johnson dedication is “Courage, truth, and the freedom to imagine a new America.” Can Chattanooga apply this theme to the Chattanooga Police Department? Can Chattanooga imagine a new police department?

Dr. Loretta P. Prater

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