October 20, 2023 8:00am

Mixed Confidence in Leaders' Response to Downtown Crime

Half of survey respondents are on board with recent actions to boost downtown safety, but a third aren't there yet

Photo of Chris Vass
Chattanooga, TN Correspondent

Just over half of Power Poll Chattanooga members are persuaded that actions by city and county elected leaders in response to the Sept. 28 death of a well-known Chattanooga businessman will quell crime in downtown areas.

And half of poll respondents said these actions can positively influence public perception of crime and public safety in the all-important business and tourism core of the city.

Since the shooting, which took place outside Patten Towers on 11th Street near Market Street, officials have heard privately and publicly from business owners, homeowners and others concerned about public safety. County commission and city council members have heard about it; both Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly and county Mayor Weston Wamp have heard about it. Sheriff Austin Garrett and Police Chief Celeste Murphy have heard about it.

Kelly recently announced that the police department would increase patrols downtown, and the Sheriff’s Office assigned four deputies and a sergeant to help out. Commissioners approved $180,000 (from hotel-motel tax revenues) to pay for the overtime that will result. In addition, Kelly, who is setting up a public safety commission, met with Patten Towers property managers about ways to beef up security at the high-rise building that is home to low-income residents, seniors and the disabled.

This month’s Power Poll asked, “Do you think plans to boost police presence in downtown, increased video surveillance and creation of a public safety commission will be effective in curtailing crime?”

Just over half — 53% — said “yes” while 18% said “no.”

Almost a third — 29% — indicated they are not sure.

These responses closely mirrored those of the second question: “Will these strategies be effective in altering public perception of crime in the business/tourism core of the city?,” to which 52% said “yes;” 14% said “no;” and 34% said they were not sure.

Power Pollers also were asked to offer advice to elected officials on how “to lead on the issue of public safety.” Respondents didn’t hold back (and some blew past the 25-word limit!). Many respondents noted that more police presence is essential to deterring crime and improving the public perception that people are and will be safe. Here is a sampling of the 112 responses:

“Don’t focus as much on the perception of being safe, but more on the reality of safe.”

“Work collaboratively and fight crime on all fronts: public education, early learning, economic development, investing in safety and policing technologies as well as police personnel.”

“Make it the priority it deserves to be.”

“Stay the course. Police cannot fix mental illness. At best just keep arresting those responsible for these horrific crimes. Our government needs to spend more time and resources in solving our mental health issues.”

“Engage with every human being on the street. Engage. Inquire. Be helpful. Be honest. Engage. Be visible. Visible with protection. Visible with follow-up. Visible in every neighborhood.”

“Police presence and training are critical. Non-criminal, but clearly mentally ill, need somewhere other than the streets.”

“Keep working on the socioeconomic and educational challenges that lead to crime as a way of life.”

“Get cops out of cars on onto the streets, i.e.,community policing.”

And here is a longer comment:

“In our downtown area, we need to protect both privacy and safety. Both are tremendously important, but safety for ALL residents and visitors must be considered paramount. That being said, we are one community, and we should shun any rhetoric to the contrary. We must actively and explicitly reject fearmongering, labelling/splitting our community into factions, and arbitrary/targeted enforcement of minor/non-violent infractions. We should focus intently on the ultimate goal of uniting and collaborating to protect all human life for the benefit of our city as a whole.”

Board of Education member Larry Grohn noted that if citizens want more officers on the streets (and they say they do), then they must support law enforcement, support funding of more jail facilities and advocate state lawmakers for more prisons.

“Then, give the judges the powers they need to enforce the laws, especially in regard to repeat offenders,” he wrote. “Finally, parents and community organizations, including churches, must come forward to say enough is enough. We must say, “if you break the law you will go to jail and serve the entire sentence you receive.”

Another respondent, Vince Butler, president Butler Consulting, encouraged support for first responders.

“We also need to increase their pay so we can recruit and retain the best people to protect and serve our city,” he wrote. “We need more police officers with a stronger presence of them walking the streets in downtown to help make it safer and more inviting at night.”

And lastly on this issue, Ellis Smith, director of special projects for the city, offered this reminder:

"As every CPD police chief in recent memory has said, there is no police department in the world that alone can cure all of society’s ills. While proactive policing is certainly the front line of public safety, relying on law enforcement alone has never worked."

Solutions will take investments in criminal justice, mental health services, public education, affordable housing and economic development.

"If any of this was easy of cheap, every city would already be doing it," he wrote. "But Chattanoogans excel when we work together, rolling up our sleeves to make our city a better place. We know what the problems are. It’s up to us to fix them."
Finally, Power Poll members were asked to describe the state of American politics — in one word. Well, 103 responded.

Here are the top 10:

Dysfunctional ... Divided ... Divisive ... Broken ... Sad ... Selfish ... Chaos ... Pathetic ... Disarray ... Embarrassing.

Leet's see what the U.S. House does today. Stay tuned. There will be more lively adjectives coming!

Contact Chris Vass at cvass@timesfreepress.com or cvass@powerpoll.com.

Power Poll Members: Do you have a friend or colleague who should be on Power Poll? Please invite them to join!

About Power Poll: Power Poll asks questions of the most powerful, influential people in U.S. cities. It is not a scientific survey. But because the people responding to the surveys comprise the leadership structure of their cities, the results afford a fascinating glimpse into the thoughts, opinions, and beliefs of those in a position to make change. Power Poll is distinctly nonpartisan.

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