published Tuesday, January 14th, 2014

Chattanooga police chief search could force officer age cap change

Travis McDonough
Travis McDonough
Photo by Maura Friedman /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Mayor Andy Berke may have to ask the City Council to revise a city ordinance in order to hire the best candidate for police chief.

Under the current ordinance, the city only can hire police officers from outside the department who are between ages 21 and 40, which could restrict the administration's search to replace Bobby Dodd, who retired Dec. 31, by this spring. Officers promoted from within the department are not subject to the restriction.

Berke's Chief of Staff Travis McDonough said Monday he isn't sure if the current law is legal because it might violate the Age Discrimination Employment Act. But if the ordinance needs to be changed, the administration will ask the council to vote on a revision, he said.

"We're going to get the best candidate regardless of age," McDonough said. "If in fact we determine the best candidate is over the age of 40 and that's the person best for the city, we'll have a conversation with council and city attorney to change that ordinance."

The administration hasn't yet asked the City Attorney's Office to research the ordinance. City Attorney Wade Hinton said he is aware of the ordinance, but he wouldn't say if the City Council would have to vote to change the code to hire someone into the police department over age 40.

The new chief would oversee the implementation of Berke's new crime fighting initiative modeled after a program that has had success in High Point, N.C. A retired High Point police chief described Berke's choice of police chief as one of the most critical decisions he'll make while in office.

The city is looking at internal candidates as well as those from outside the department, and McDonough said candidates familiar with Chattanooga's version of the High Point Initiative could have an advantage.

Today council members will take the next step in the police chief search when they are expected to approve the hiring of a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit research organization to recruit candidates nationwide. If hired at a capped rate of $39,000, the firm, Police Executive Research Forum, will meet with the police department, union leaders and employee groups to create the right profile for what Chattanooga needs in a police chief.

The organization will then work with a local blue ribbon committee to narrow the search.

McDonough said the firm was chosen because of its experience in conducting more than 75 police executive searches in the last decade.

Councilman Chip Henderson said his only concern with the search committee is ensuring that Chattanooga police officers will not be overlooked. He was assured they wouldn't be.

Councilman Larry Grohn said he will vote against hiring an outside firm because he thinks it's a waste of money.

"There are other ways to do this without spending taxpayer dollars," Grohn said.

The last police chief hired from outside the department was in 1997 when former Chief Jimmie Dotson was recruited to Chattanooga from Houston.

Local attorney Roger Dickson, who helped select Dotson and is a member of the blue ribbon search committee, said he doesn't remember an age restriction being in place when Dotson, who was 50, was hired.

In 1999, the City Council revised the city ordinance raising the age limit for newly hired police officers from 31 to 39. At the time City Attorney Randy Nelson said the practice of hiring only officers under 40 was not considered age discrimination.

Hinton said the latest revision to the age requirement was made in 2012.

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at jlukachick@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659.

about Joy Lukachick...

Joy Lukachick is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press Since 2009, she's covered breaking news, high-profile trials, stories of lost lives and of regained hope and done investigative work. Raised near the Bayou, Joy’s hometown is along the outskirts of Baton Rouge, La. She has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Louisiana State University. While at LSU, Joy was a staff writer for the Daily Reveille. When Joy isn't chasing ...

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