Berke boldly keeps status quo in policing, rejects query on reform

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Andy Berke, mayor of Chattanooga, greets Ben Caleb Long, an IBEW rep, and his wife, Sarah, and son, Wyatt prior to a debate at UTC. (Photo David Tulis)

Andy Berke, mayor of Chattanooga, greets Ben Caleb Long, an IBEW rep, left; and his wife, Sarah; and son, Wyatt prior to a debate at UTC. (Photo David Tulis)

Mayor Andy Berke is holding course in his control of policing at Chattanooga, rejecting questions at the debate Friday about reform, using his limited time in a UTC forum to describe his police agency’s use of improved surveillance technology and focused suppression against young men in gangs.

By David Tulis / Noogaradio 1240 AM 101.1 FM

A reporter asked Mr. Berke afterward about the Javario Eagle killing case and “statutorily permitted extra-judicial” slayings of citizens by officers.

“I’m not going to talk about that,” Mr. Berke said. “I think I spoke up there about what we’re doing and the world of policing and we’ll stick with those changes.”

“So, no major changes?”

“We’re going to continue. I put forward my plans on what we’re going to do.”

His administration has refused comment on two highly publicized rogue cop cases in Chattanooga involving Hanson Melvin and Rochelle Gelpin, arrested without probable cause and charged with disorderly conduct based on statements and grand jury testimony that has every sign of being perjured.

Most of his discussion was about the operation of police, particularly those members thought to be involved in criminal activities. His department tested new surveillance gear — “public safety cameras” — that day, he said.

The department, serving the executive branch of municipal government, will continue developing real-time surveillance and stress enforcement acts against owners of firearms. Mr. Berke said 2.7 guns are seized daily, evidently from people whom officers believe should not go armed. The mayor’s goal is to get guns off the streets, he said.

His belief in the benefit of police officers as a class of city employee is proven in his raising the number of officers on patrol — now at 500.

Property and violent crime is down, he said, but crimes involving rifles and pistol remains alarmingly high, he said.

Mr. Berke said fighting crime is a long-term project, and to “change the path that people are on” he will focus his efforts on schooling and continue an early learning program for small children.

Conventional talk about policing

If Mr. Berke is a progressive liberal favoring state action by force, conservative city council member and challenger Larry Grohn showed himself as being of a similar ethic.

He said he would “allow the police to do their job that they’ve professionally be trained to do, without interference.” This charge, he said, “does not mean I would not have oversight of the department. We have one of the finest police departments in the entire Southeast if not in the entire United States.” He chided the mayor for his gang task force, especially its closed and renamed. He said the administration has been “attacking the symptoms of the violence” rather than the core reasons such as homelessness, lack of affordable housing and lack of “workforce development.”

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The city needs to take guns from the hands of people and put tools into them “with the right training,” he said.

Candidate Chris Long was much in the same direction — pro-police. He agrees with “getting guns off the street,” but he calls spying techniques “big brother” with an eternal database of people’s activities. Community policing, where officers know everyone in their district, works to solve crimes and reassure people in rough parts of town they can be safe, he said. The police department is big enough without adding staff, apart from those to replace officers who retire. Tasers with working batteries would be helpful. “We need to take care of those folks [officers]. They are doing an outstanding job.”

Javario Eagle slaying

Javario Eagle

Javario Eagle

He said he has “no major issues around here with any kind of police brutality.”

At this statement a voice from the audience asked about Javario Eagle’s slaying in 2016. Mr. Long said he understood the question about this shootdown by city employees of a black dad who was having a mental episode. “I understand what you’re saying,” Mr. Long said.

Dave Crockett, a former three-term city councilman, said his administration would use proven techniques to reduce criminal acts by young men. Part of his bid to change the culture that spawns crime would be to create at the university a center of well-being, a nonprofit collaborative of a kind already existing that helps military people and their dependents “thrive when bad things happen,” giving people hope and courage to deal with life’s distresses, Mr. Crockett said.

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