BY THE NUMBERS
36 officers and firefighters have retired this year, not including the police chief and his command staff, compared with the average 20.
Source: Fire and Police Pension Board
In the midst of a massive transformation in how Chattanooga fights crime, the city's police department is losing a century's worth of senior police leadership.
Chattanooga police Chief Bobby Dodd sent a text message to Mayor Andy Berke's chief of staff, Travis McDonough, Sunday night about his plans to retire, the mayor said Monday. Dodd met with Berke on Monday morning and handed over his retirement letter. Dodd, who is in his late 40s, told the mayor he has an opportunity in the private sector and will leave the chief's position in two weeks, Berke said.
But that's not all.
All but one of Dodd's four chiefs has either retired or plans to retire soon, according to the city.
Berke emphasized in an interview late Monday afternoon that the retirements will not deter his violence reduction initiative. It was a campaign pledge to change policing by using methods such as the High Point Initiative, a combination of tough policing, community engagement and direct contact with violent offenders, to reduce crime. Two other department leaders, Capt. Edwin McPherson and Lt. Todd Royval, have been working on VRI training and methods, Berke said.
"We have retirements on a regular basis; this happens," Berke said. "But I understand that it's different when the chief retires and you see other people [leave] as well."
Two weeks ago, Assistant Chief Randy Dunn retired. City spokeswoman Lacie Stone confirmed Monday that Deputy Chief Tommy Kennedy, Assistant Chief Kirk Eidson and Capt. Jeannie Snyder plan to retire soon. They, like Dodd, range in service time from 25 to 30 years each.
Shortly after Berke took office in April, he said, Dodd told him about approaching retirement deadlines for much of his command staff. Since then, Berke has formed a pension task force and commissioned its members to find ways to solve the city's $150 million unfunded liability to the police and fire pension plan.
Looming retirement deadlines and growing tension over pension benefits between the Fire and Police Pension Board and the city likely contributed to some of the decisions to retire now, one city councilman said. Councilman Larry Grohn said this kind of exit within the police department could set the city back during a critical time. Grohn said he fears this is only the beginning. "Everybody knows something needs to be done about the pension," Grohn said. "But there is so much concern about negative aspects of this process that the city could be losing a large number of experienced officers at a time when we need them the most." And indeed, police and firefighter retirements have nearly doubled so far this year.
Not including Dodd and his command staff, 36 officers and firefighters have retired, compared with the average 20. At least 13 of those retirements came before the average 28 years of service, according to the Fire and Police Pension Board.
Pension officials had predicted a mass exodus after deep pension cuts were being considered by Berke's 18-member task force. Two weeks remain before Berke's Dec. 31 deadline to reach a consensus on how to address the police and firefighters pension shortfall.
That deadline could be extended, but there hasn't been a full task force meeting since October. Pension fund administrator Frank Hamilton cited unrest in November within both departments over discussion of changes to the pension plan. Berke said he and the task force have communicated clearly the growing problems with the pension. "We have been deliberate in what we've done to reach the right solution," Berke said.
He did acknowledge Monday that parts of the pension plan designed to be incentives for early retirement are a hurdle to retaining experienced senior staff. Dodd did not return calls Monday. But he said in a news release that public safety would remain a top priority under Berke, that VRI would have an important impact on the community and the pension task force work would achieve a consensus to accomplish police and city goals.
The other retiring officers also could not be reached for comment, but some are approaching deadlines for incentives such as the Deferred Retirement Option Plan benefit. The DROP benefit pays a portion of the retiree's pension in an attractive early lump sum and reduces monthly pension payouts after retirement accordingly.
Berke applauded Dodd's service and then touched on the process of replacing the chief.
"Chief Dodd has really done a wonderful job over these last several months that I've worked with him putting the department in the right place, " Berke said.
"What we have to do now is find the right person to take us to the next level."
Berke quickly named a panel to help evaluate potential replacements for Dodd, calling local attorney and former magistrate Roger Dickson, District Attorney General Bill Cox and Donna Roddy, on-site health educator for BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.
The three had not yet received detailed instructions on Monday.
Cox said Dodd has done an excellent job since his appointment in June 2010.
A former policeman, the county's chief prosecutor didn't want to discuss specifics of what qualifications the panel would consider but said the new chief must be able to "work with both police and the community to reduce violence."
Berke said the city will use an outside agency to find "top-tier" candidates for the panel to review and the process would likely take months. It took three months to select Dodd.
Dodd will remain chief until Dec. 31. Deputy Chief Stan Maffett will serve as interim chief until a replacement is appointed.
Contact staff writers Todd South and Joy Lukachick at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com or 423-757-6347 or 423-757-6659.
Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...
Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...