published Sunday, December 22nd, 2013

Chief selection critical for Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke's violence reduction plan

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    Chattanooga Police Chief Bobby Dodd is shown in a 2012 photo. Dodd and most of his command staff have announced their retirements. Some believe a city police pension system that encourages early retirement affects chiefs' length of time in the job.
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    Former Chattanooga Police Chief Steve Parks
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    Former Chattanooga Police Chief Jimmie Dotson
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    Ralph Cothran was Chattanooga's first police chief under the mayor-council form of government.
    Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

POLICE CHIEF FACTS

These are in order from most recent to oldest.

Bobby Dodd (2010-2013)

Years with the department: 25

Years as chief: 3

Age at retirement: 49

Freeman Cooper (2007-2010)

Years with the department: 28

Years as chief: 3

Age at retirement: 58

Steven Parks (2004-2006)

Years with the department: 28

Years as chief: 2

Age at retirement: 50

Jimmie Dotson (1997-2004)

Years with the department: 6

Years as chief: 6

Age at retirement: 56

Ralph Cothran (1989-1995)

Years with the department: 31

Years as chief: 6

Died in office at age 57

Source: City of Chattanooga

WHAT'S NEXT

The process to pick a new Chattanooga police chief has begun, with the city soliciting for an outside agency to begin the search and Mayor Andy Berke's selection of a three-person panel of local representatives to vet applicants for him to select.

The panel includes Hamilton County District Attorney Bill Cox; local attorney Roger Dickson, who helped select past Chief Jimmie Dotson; and Donna Roddy, on-site health educator for BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.

Berke did not give a specific time line other than to say it would likely take months.

ABOUT HIGH POINT

The High Point Initiative, created by nationally known criminologist David Kennedy, centers on the belief that most violent crime comes from a very small pocket of the community. That means police must first identify the criminals responsible for the most violence in the city and identify where those criminals live. Police target those individuals. They are told to stop the crime, get help from local service agencies, whether it's help getting a job or continuing their education, or go to prison for a long time. Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke has vowed to re-create the High Point program here.

Source: Times Free Press archives

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke's choice to be the city's next police chief could be the most important decision of his time in office.

That's because whoever leads the department in the coming years will have to build a new policing strategy, one that takes years to show sustained success, its creators say.

The strategy has just begun.

During his campaign for mayor this year and since taking office in April, Berke has championed a violence reduction initiative modeled after a program that had long-term success in High Point, N.C.

"This may be one of the most critical decisions he makes as mayor," said retired High Point Police Chief Jim Fealy. "This is not some program with some finite start date and end date. This is a change in the way you do business."

Berke acknowledged the long-term nature of the initiative during an interview last week following retirement announcements by Chattanooga Police Chief Bobby Dodd and all but one of his command staff chiefs.

"This is a really important moment for the Chattanooga Police Department," Berke said, noting efforts over the past eight months to begin training. "Now we have to select someone who can take us to the next level."

But other factors -- most notably a pension system that encourages early retirement, even for senior staff -- can limit how long the next chief will serve.

Since a new pension plan took effect in 1999, Chattanooga's police chiefs have served an average of about three years before retiring. Each stepped down with decades of police experience behind them and many productive years ahead of them. Dodd, for example, is only 49 years old.

Of the past five police chiefs, the oldest at retirement was Freeman Cooper, who was 58.

Yet each walked away at that point in their careers on decisions arrived at partly by design and partly by choice.

Most of the dozen deputy and assistant chiefs at the police department since 2000 also have served no more than three years in those positions.

Kurt Faires, a civilian member of the mayor's 18-person pension task force, said giving incentives for top leaders to leave depletes the department of much-needed career knowledge.

"Frankly, those are some of people's best years," Faires said.

He said the task force had not focused specifically on exemptions or pension alternatives for command staff personnel, but that the scenario raised a lot of questions.

•••

Fealy spent a decade at the helm of the High Point, N.C., Police Department. He said short-term crime reductions did come but it took five to seven years for the police and the community to see the new policing strategies as routine.

He said one drawback to a mayor-council form of government is that if the mayor isn't re-elected or doesn't run for re-election, there's no assurance that the police chief and the initiative will stay in place long enough to become effective.

"There's likely to be a chief change, and that's just not a good thing," Fealy said.

Councilman Larry Grohn is skeptical of Berke's long-term commitment.

"All of the stars are aligned for Mayor Berke to run for governor in 2018," Grohn said. "We have a one-term mayor here."

He said much of what's being started with the initiative will have to be continued by administrations over multiple terms.

Berke said whether he was in office for more than one term or not was beside the point and that he's more focused on reducing crime now and building consensus and momentum for the initiative. The mayor would not commit now to running for a second term.

"If we are successful, I think that anyone will continue this type of initiative because it has been a benefit for Chattanooga," Berke said.

He said key people who work on violent crime within the police department have had training and begun the work of community-focused policing and locating crime hot spots across the city.

He also said the outgoing chief and command staff had "buy-in" to the new initiative early on that has started a culture change within the department.

Berke said he will search for a new chief inside and outside the department.

An outside candidate would not face pension deadlines that internal candidates would.

His internal search could run into some pension hurdles.

•••

Twenty-five senior police officers -- many of whom have the experience to be considered for chief -- can retire today, according to the Police and Fire Pension Board. Eight more will become eligible in 2014.

That doesn't mean those officers will retire, only that they're eligible, said Frank Hamilton, pension fund administrator.

Officers can retire any time after 25 years of service. But a pension benefit encourages retirement before 30 years, and the average officer retires with 28 years.

Dodd served less than four years as chief. Cooper, his immediate predecessor, served nearly the same amount of time and Cooper's predecessor, Steven Parks, served less than three years, according to city records.

Retired Chattanooga Police Chief Jimmie Dotson was appointed from outside the department in 1997 and served until 2004. In that time he reorganized the department, which he described as "top-heavy."

Dotson's predecessor, Ralph Cothran, served from 1989 until his death at age 57 in 1995. He was the first chief under the mayor-council form of government. Before 1989 the city had an at-large, commission-style government with a police commissioner. The department went without a permanent chief for nearly two years after Cothran died.

Before the pension plan overhaul in 1999 under Dotson, retirement salaries were calculated at considerably lower rates than they are today. The result was that officers tended to stay in place, sometimes into their 70s, said Police and Fire Pension Board officials.

Dotson and the board supported what came to be called the deferred retirement option program, which allows officers to take a lump-sum partial pension payment in advance if they retire between 25 and 30 years of service. After 30 years, the DROP option is no longer available.

The police chief selects his or her deputy and assistant chiefs. However, many of those lower-level chiefs don't rise to the rank until they're at or near their 25-year DROP eligibility.

In 2010, then-Chief Cooper announced his retirement after 28 years and elected to take his DROP. Then-Mayor Ron Littlefield attempted to keep Cooper on as chief and pay him a salary in addition to his retirement.

The City Council rejected that move and Cooper retired, able to collect a $240,000 DROP and an $80,000 annual pension, according to Times Free Press archives.

At the time, interim Chief Mark Rawlston, Deputy Chief Mike Williams and Assistant Chief Bobby Dodd were internal candidates to replace Cooper.

But both Williams and Rawlston were fast approaching their DROP deadlines. That was one of the reasons Littlefield chose Dodd, he said at the time and repeated in a phone interview last week.

At the time, Hamilton and Pension Board President Chris Willmore said, they showed models that would extend the retirement benefit to 33 years for certain positions but Littlefield didn't seem interested.

Both said the pension works as a personnel tool and that if the city wants to adjust certain benefits to apply differently to command staff, they could do that. But the idea has not been discussed since the 2010 talk with Littlefield, Willmore said.

When Dodd took the post, he had about seven years left to retire without losing his DROP.

This month he retired just over the 25-year mark. Dodd did not return calls seeking comment, but Berke said the chief told him that he has a private-sector job opportunity.

Berke dismissed the idea of a long-term contract for an incoming chief that could secure his or her position beyond the next election cycle.

"It's a priority for me to hire leadership that also has [a violence reduction plan] as a clear initiative that they're pushing and hold them accountable for doing that," Berke said.

Dotson said he needed his entire time to accomplish what he needed to.

Both Dotson and Fealy were hired as chiefs after retiring from Texas police departments, Dotson from Houston and Fealy from Austin.

"I was basically brought in as a change agent to change the police department," Dotson said.

The man who hired him, then-Mayor Jon Kinsey, didn't run for a second term in 2001, four years into Dotson's tenure, but the new mayor, Bob Corker, kept him on the job and he stayed two more years.

Dotson said in a phone interview last week that he could not have accomplished the changes he did in two to three years. The police force has to see a consistent message and results over years, he said.

Contact staff writer Todd South at tsouth@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @tsouthCTFP

about Todd South...

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 ...

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