published Saturday, May 11th, 2013

Chattanooga police average 17 'stop and talks' a day

Chattanooga police Officer Ertis Craw speaks with Washington Alternative students during a stop outside of a gas station on Fourth Avenue. The students were stopped by Craw and another officer for truancy, and the officers advised them about the need to stay in school and stay safe.
Chattanooga police Officer Ertis Craw speaks with Washington Alternative students during a stop outside of a gas station on Fourth Avenue. The students were stopped by Craw and another officer for truancy, and the officers advised them about the need to stay in school and stay safe.
Photo by Doug Strickland.

Who gets stopped?

2,822 black men (44 percent)

1,982 white men (31 percent)

815 white women (13 percent)

658 black women (10 percent)

47 Hispanic men (1 percent)

19 other men (less than 1 percent)

15 other women (less than 1 percent)

2 Hispanic women (less than 1 percent)

Source: 2012 field interview data

What's a field interview?

Chattanooga police officers may conduct field interviews at any time a citizen is willing to talk to an officer and the officer has a legal right to be present at the location of the interview.

A person does not have to be present for a field interview. For example, officers can make a report when they see a known drug dealer's car parked at a location.

Criteria to initiate a field interview include the following:

Individuals acting suspiciously in unusual locations, such as commercial areas in which all the businesses are closed for the night;

Recent crimes have been reported in the area;

A reasonable suspicion that criminal activity has taken place;

The area in which the interview is being conducted is a high-crime area;

The person being interviewed resembles a suspect description in a criminal incident;

Individuals whose presence is unusual given the location, time of day or actions of the persons.

Source: Chattanooga Police Department Policy Manual

Each year Chattanooga police officers stop and question thousands of people.

Most are black.

Most are men.

Sometimes they are detained and searched. Sometimes they go to jail. Sometimes they simply walk away.

Police use these "stop and talks," more properly known as field interviews, to document suspicious activity and meet potential informants and known offenders. The practice has been in place in the police department for the last 10 to 15 years. But the routine of stopping residents has been around since the beginning of policing.

Police contend the stops sometimes help officers solve crimes or identify people who potentially will commit crimes. Critics argue that officers racially profile people and sometimes cast such a wide net that law-abiding residents get stopped.

Most police departments across the country have some form of the stops, which can lead to pat-downs. In the last year, the New York Police Department's "stop and frisk" program has come under attack, with accusations of racial profiling, privacy violations and potentially illegal stops. A federal lawsuit has been filed.

Chattanooga police conducted 6,366 field interviews last year, an average of 17 a day, according to data requested by the Chattanooga Times Free Press. That does not include traffic stops.

The data show:

• 19-year-olds get stopped the most.

• The median age for whites was 33, and 26 for blacks.

• Seventy-eight percent of people stopped were men.

• Fifty-five percent of those stopped -- men and women together -- were black; the city's population is 35 percent black, according to U.S. Census data.

An analysis of the data by the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies showed people of any race were five times more likely to be stopped in nonwhite, high-poverty neighborhoods. A map completed by the Ochs Center showed the distribution of stops by race. When the stops were plotted, 613 stops were made downtown and 465 were made in Avondale.

Kenneth Chilton, president of the Ochs Center, said officers might be more likely to focus their efforts in high-crime areas. Not only wrongdoers, but law-abiding residents, too, will feel the heat, he said.

"I think you could also see why residents in some neighborhoods might be frustrated," he said.

It's hard to measure whether the stop-and-talks lead to searches, contraband such as drugs or weapons or arrests because the Chattanooga Police Department does not keep such data about the stops.

"We would want to know the outcome of these stops. Are they confiscating guns? Are they finding a lot of people with drugs?" Chilton said.

Police Chief Bobby Dodd said the department does not receive lots of complaints about the stops.

"We train officers to be professional. One of the examples we use is treat people the way you would want your mom, your dad, your sister, your brother to be treated," he said. "Not everybody out here that you meet is up to something. Not everybody who is poor is a criminal. Not everybody in a high-crime area is a criminal."

Gerald Webb, a former prosecutor and now criminal defense attorney who grew up in East Chattanooga, said it's natural for police to do most of those interviews in high-crime areas. He believes a number of hard-working officers have earned the respect of poor and minority residents in those areas, but many have not.

"I think if you spoke to a lot of people in these areas, they would say they are not respected and they are treated bad," he said.

At one point federal dollars provided money for community policing through a Weed and Seed program in certain neighborhoods. When the grants went away, so did the officers assigned to high-crime neighborhoods. Webb said a community policing program is needed.

"It's easy for police officers to generalize people in the neighborhoods, and it's easy for people in the neighborhood to generalize officers," Webb said.

He said residents develop relationships with the officer who patrols their streets. He's not just seen as a uniform, but also a person.

"He's a good guy. He's a respectful guy, and he's got a family. I can talk to him. And then there's no problem. But we don't have that," Webb said.

Dodd said officers must exercise discretion when deciding to make a stop, which can evolve into a search or arrest.

"You're right there on the edge of 'Is it a valuable tool that helps in the community or is it a tool that is not as valuable to the citizens because the cops abuse it?'" he said.

Sergeants review field interview reports once they are submitted. Many of the officers at the department are equipped with audio and video recording devices. Random checks are done of the footage, according to police.

There's nothing that requires people to talk to police during the field interviews. They're voluntary.

"For the most part, if you're a law-abiding citizen, we can talk," Deputy Chief Tommy Kennedy said. "We can start up a conversation. You can choose not to talk to us."

However, Webb said most people don't realize they are not required to talk to officers.

"I don't think we want to bind [officers'] hands too much that they can't do things that contribute to solving crime, but at the same time there are a lot of adults who don't realize if an officer walks up to you and initiates a conversation you can just leave," he said. "It's assumed you have to stay there."

Dodd said he wants to put police officers where they are needed. That means a lot of officers focus on neighborhoods with high crime rates.

"If I lived in that neighborhood, and I cared about the neighborhood and wanted the crime to get better, I would appreciate the officer doing their job," he said.

Contact staff writer Beth Burger at bburger@times freepress.com or 423-757-6406. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/abburger.

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