When Metro Police Chief Steve Anderson joined the force in 1975, his job as a patrol officer was very different from what today’s counterpart undertakes. Less integrated and less data-driven, the police force of 35 years ago didn’t have today’s crime suppression units, “flex” teams or camera networks.
And their cars were, er, less sophisticated as well.
“When we started out, we had Plymouths. They were very fast, but they wouldn’t stop,” Anderson said.
In a career touching parts of five decades, Anderson did almost every job in the department before succeeding Ronal Serpas as chief in 2010. As his second anniversary approached, he sat down with City Paper reporters and editors to talk about what’s changed, where the challenges to local law enforcement lie and why, for example, officers have made more than 324,000 vehicle stops already this year. His answers — thoughtful ... and sometimes nuanced in a way which reflects that he’s also a lawyer — tell us much about the state of the Metro police department today.
Let’s start with the two new precincts that you’re coming into. You opened up Madison this year, and you’re coming into Midtown. What are the challenges of opening these precincts? What have you learned from Madison and what are you considering going into Midtown Hills?
OK, Madison didn’t present much of a challenge. We were able to hire 58 new officers; we got 50 from the COPS Grant, and the council authorized eight more, so that gave us our infrastructure for the [Madison] Precinct … our Flex Teams or Crime Suppression Team, the management and so forth, and then our crime analysis people looked at the call volume, other calls for service, to police activity. We try to balance the workload amongst the precincts the best we can, but there has to be some human intervention. So we expanded what the actual data called for and gave us more natural boundaries over on Dixon Road and so forth and took away some of the square miles. North previously had 188 of Davidson County’s 533 square miles, and the north end of the county is somewhat sparsely populated, but we take into account that’s a lot of ground to cover, also. So the support from the Madison community was just overwhelming. When I came to the first roll call on the first day of January , I could hardly get into the parking lot or the roll call room because all the neighborhood groups were there, the Chamber of Commerce was there.
Commander [Brian] Johnson has done an outstanding job in organizing that, getting it up and getting it running. I can’t say enough about that. I was somewhat hesitant about putting someone who had not been a commander in a new precinct, but [Deputy Chief Louise] Kelton and I talked about it, and she knew him from working more closely with him than I had, and she said he’s up to the challenge, and that’s
certainly been the case. So that precinct kicked off without a hiccup, and it’s remained the same. And I expect somewhat the same on the Midtown Hills.
We’re currently working — the data tells us that the area between Hillsboro Road and Nolensville Road should be carved out for the new precinct and dividing the other precincts accordingly; in other words, shrinking the size of West and South and Hermitage. We’re going to expand it somewhat to take in the Vanderbilt campus, so that we’ll have Vanderbilt, Lipscomb and Belmont under one roof, so to speak.. It keeps all their security directors and police force communicating. We’re going to look at it a little closer to see if Trevecca might fit, so that we actually have all those universities under one roof, but I don’t know about that; that’s going to be a little bit more difficult, but the real challenge on the [Midtown Hills] Precinct will be … obviously the staffing. We’ll have to take into account that we’ll need additional Flex Teams, additional Crime Suppression Units and management for that.
On the staffing, that’s a common issue with this budget cycle with the COPS Grant expiring, asking for some more money, getting most of that. Going forward and staffing Midtown, what’s your plan for dealing with staffing and budgeting that?
Well, the mayor and the finance director, Rich Riebeling, and I have a very good working relationship, so as always, what I do is walk in our budget hearings, and actually prior to that, and say, “Here’s exactly what we need to do what we need to do,” but always with the qualification I understand that resources have to be divided, and the police department is not the only department within the government. So I never get everything that I ask for, but I do get what the mayor and the finance director feels is the best balance to make sure that public safety stays one of the mayor’s priorities, but also takes into account that other department and other services need funding, also. So I expect the same here, and we’ll have that open and candid conversation. And I think that the Metropolitan Council has enough confidence in the police department to fund whatever is available to make sure that that precinct is staffed and to make sure that the other precincts have the resources they need.
What kind of challenge is the city’s growth to the police department and what
are some of the things that you guys are working to do?
Well, as the population grows, obviously the police department needs to grow in somewhat a linear fashion, and I think given our history and given the mayor’s history of public safety being one of his priorities, that will continue to occur. But I think as population grows, as technology available for the criminal element grows, then we continue to meet those challenges by driving everything down to the precinct level, recognizing that Nashville is one of the major cities in the United States; you know, we’re in the top 30 in population, but we try to manage it one community at a time. So each precinct commander I consider the chief of police for that geographical area, and I try to support the precinct commanders by making sure they have the resources and the support, and we take the position here that the rest of us exist, so to speak, to support the precinct commanders. So that’s my job, that’s the job of all the specialized units, to make sure that at the community level, we’re delivering the service that we need. So as the population grows, we’ll continue to try to grow our neighborhood groups; we’ve got over 500 neighborhood groups we work with, having one more and then in the future, two more, precinct commanders, will allow them to work more closely with the population as it grows.
What are some of the biggest differences you’ve seen just in terms of pure crime, due to Nashville’s explosion over the last couple of decades?
Well, I think that gang activity across the nation has increased, and while it hasn’t increased in the same measure here, obviously we’re very aware of it; we have three gang units to address that, and we keep it at a minimum here in Nashville. Nashville’s gangs, thankfully, are somewhat — are not — organized. They’re somewhat loose-knit, but we do recognize that the … persons involved in gang activity are the type of people that are likely to commit crimes, sometimes unprovoked. But I think, as I’ve not seen any noticeable trends outside of that, we have just more of what we had in 1975 when I came here.
When you started out, you went into patrol initially. What’s different for someone coming out of the academy, going into patrol right now versus when you went in?
Oh, that would be night and day. When I was a patrol officer, we were expected to answer our calls and to not involve ourselves in too much else. There was not a lot of proactive work. There was not a lot of coordination between the specialized units, detectives and patrol officers. The detectives that actually mingled with the patrol officers and gathered information were few and far between.
One example that you may remember was an outstanding homicide detective — and later a homicide sergeant — investigator Danny Collins. He was one of the exceptions that would come to your zone, “What’s going on here? Do you know a particular person? Can you help me with this lead?” So today, we have that thousands of times over. Our precinct detectives, by design, are in the same hallways with our patrol officers. Our patrol officers are constantly working with detectives. Our patrol officers are engaged in proactive activity. In the patrol zones, we try to balance their workload so that they have about 20 percent free time, so to speak, for proactive activity. That’s on the average, so you know, one day they may be tied up all day on calls, but we try to keep their calls for service at about 80 percent of their time.
The other noticeable difference is the Flex Teams. The Flex Teams and the Crime Suppression Teams are where you really make a difference. The Flex Teams, we have three at each precinct, six officers and a supervisor, and as their name implies, they’re flexible. Their days off change, their hours change, their locations change daily. The commander is moving them from place to place within the precinct wherever the need arises, so we are more directly contacting people, we are more directly intervening, we are out looking for crime before it happens, and that’s the major job of the Flex Teams. Each precinct has the Crime Suppression Teams, and that’s a vice squad in the precinct, six officers and a supervisor, so the Commander can address that street-level drug activity or other vice-type activities on his or her own accord, not having to request those services from central headquarters, not having to get my approval or the deputy chiefs’ approval to do that.
Chief, talking about the support on the streets and the men on the streets, where are your employment numbers right now? I think on the website, it talks about how the police force has a “progressive hiring” stance. What does that mean?
We’re authorized 1,373 sworn personnel, so actually, we try to average 1,373. We can’t just hire one person at a time, and that’s not quite accurate … for the most part, we have to hire people 30 to 60 at a time for a class, so we know that from time to time, we’re going to drop down into the 1,350s and then we’ll hire a class, and then maybe we’ll be 1,370 or 1,380 or 1,390, so that’s about where we are now. I would have to check, but I think we’re at around the 1,380 range at this point. We’ve got a new class in there, and then obviously as [attrition] takes its toll, by the time a class graduates, we’re down, ready to hire another class. Generally, we’ll have a class anywhere from 30 to 60 people, and generally, on the average, it takes one class a year just to meet attrition.
What kind of candidates are you looking for? Where are the people coming in from, like college students out of MTSU, at the crime college there, or are you pulling from other forces?
Well, probably the majority of our applicants are college graduates, and that — a two-year degree — is one of the requirements. On the other hand, past military experience, past law enforcement experience, and it hasn’t been that long ago that we added to that criteria five years’ working experience. So the example I use from time to time is if you’ve been an assistant manager at McDonald’s for five years, we want you, because you’re the type of person that obviously delivers a quality product, you have to stay in business; you’re a people person, because you have to make sure the customers are satisfied with your product; you’re a good manager, because you have constant turnover; and that’s what the police department is all about, and I’ll add to that, the technical skills that go with it. The job is highly technical; our computers are the heart of the police department anymore, but you have to be a people person. You have to want to do the job; you have to have the stamina; you have to have the willingness to work different shifts and different days off; and unfortunately, we’re competing with private business. Our standards are high, and those types of persons are also well sought-out by private industry. We do well compared to other police agencies in our applicants.
Obviously, I would like to add to the pool, and I would like to have more candidates to look at as we hire — I’d like to have at least two that meet all the criteria for each one position; we’re about one and one at this point, but Nashville is a very attractive place to live. We’re a very good police department.
Now that I’ve said that, I don’t take credit for any of that. The credit goes to the precinct commanders, the people that actually run the department, but I can tell when I’m sitting at the table with the major City Chief’s Association, the 73 largest cities in the United States, Canada and Great Britain, that I know where we ranked with them and I know what people say about us as they’re shopping for jobs. So we do better in recruitment than most police departments, but obviously, it’s always a challenge, and we’re always looking. I started several years ago to printing our recruitment information on the back of my business card; I started that about 10 years ago, handing those out when I see someone that I think may need to come to work for us. So it’s a challenge. We have a full-time recruitment staff and we aggressively recruit.
Over the past year, year and a half or so, there have been some officers or police trainees who have been arrested for smaller charges — sometimes DUI, sometimes domestic assault — and these have been officers right out of the academy academy. Have you noticed an issue with that more so recently, or is that maybe a byproduct of the hiring or … ?
No. I think it’s no more an issue now than it was in 1975 in terms of how often it occurs, the type of activity. I think we make an issue of it. I think that as we have evolved, as society has evolved, society expects more of us, so the standards are higher. So I think when that does occur, that we take quick action and we make arrangements for those persons not to work here. The public deserves better, and the public expects better, and that’s our goal to meet their expectations. And the other part of it is we’re pretty much an open book, so we make sure that when that does occur, that people know what happened and what we’re doing about it. Now, unfortunately, there’s not much of a way to predict future behavior; you can predict future behavior by past behavior, and so our background investigations reveal a lot of activity that says, “This is likely to occur again,” and that’s the people we don’t hire. But the absence of something like that in someone’s past is somewhat a predictor of the future, but it’s not an absolutely certain predictor, so I think over the past years, we’ve made the message pretty clear that activity like domestic violence and DUIs is a disqualifier to work here, and I’ve sat at this very table with persons and say, “You are a good person and you are a good office, but you’ve disqualified yourself to work here.” For the most part, when that occurs now, we see people just resigning upfront rather than face the hearings and termination.
Recently, you talked about traffic issues in terms of, “Well, it’s great our murder rate is down, but we still have 50 to 60 innocent people getting killed on the roadways.” What is the police department’s role in that?
Sure. Let me clarify what I was talking about. I was talking about vehicle stops. Obviously, traffic enforcement is very important. If there were no traffic enforcement on the streets out here — when you come here today, you probably saw about three tickets that needed to be written, so if people don’t think other people are watching, then they tend to speed, all the things that cause crashes, all the things that cause deaths. So we take that very serious, so traffic enforcement, as you might hear me say from time to time, traffic enforcement is law enforcement, because part of our public safety mission is keeping the roadways as safe as possible. The people that met their death at the hands of someone they didn’t know because that person was drunk and on the wrong side of the road, deserve better, and so traffic enforcement is law enforcement. What you actually heard me speaking to was vehicle stops.
So for suspicious activity or traffic violations, we stop a lot of cars. So this year, I think the number last week was 324,000 times. That’s 324,000 times so far this year that one of our officers has stopped a car on the street, and in the course of that stop, checked for outstanding warrants, looked for drug activity, looked for illegal weapons, made inquiry about activity, completed field interview reports and then 84 percent of the time said, “Don’t speed anymore.”
Sixteen percent of the time, I think it’s 15.6 percent of the time is the current figure, is someone gets a traffic citation. So the vehicle stops are very important in law enforcement. One, when we make a vehicle stop, people know we’re out there. When those blue lights are on, everybody else is slowing down. The people that get stopped are likely to drive more safely, for the next few miles anyway, and then the amount of criminal activity — persons going places to commit crimes, for the most part, go in vehicles — so we do a lot of interdiction work like that. We take about 2,000 guns off the street every year, and a good many of those come from vehicles, so who’s to say which gun we took off the street that prevented someone from being randomly killed that night? So you never hear me say, “Write more traffic tickets.” That’s the discretion of the officers, and as I have to stand at roll call and tell them, “You know when somebody needs a ticket and you know when they don’t; it’s up to you,” but actually, I don’t even have to encourage vehicle stops anymore. The morale and the motivation of our officers out there, you can’t buy that. So that’s why you see that number increasing every year.
Since we’re on this topic … one of our strategies is what we call Directed Mission One, and that’s where on Friday and Saturday night, non-patrol persons — detectives, administrative people and so forth — get in uniform and through their command are patrolling what we call “hot spots,” where the precinct commanders say, “Here’s where I need some extra enforcement.” Now it was said to me one time, “Well, the only reason you do that is to get more traffic tickets.” Well, I looked at the analysis on that is, our Mission One people write a traffic ticket on the average once every 25 shifts they work. So they’re out there where they need to be, they’re doing a great job, and it’s within their discretion of where traffic tickets are needed, so on the average, one in every 25 shifts.
You mentioned like one ticket per officer per week or something like that?
Yeah, I think it was 1.1 at this time.… And I know our critics say, “Well, all 1,373 of you aren’t out there writing tickets,” and that’s correct, so just divide that number in half, and if you remember Algebra II, they told you it would be important — just double the other number — well, I think it’s .8, excuse me, it’s .8 tickets per officer per week, so that would be 1.6 per officer per week – just using half of our officers.
Well, let’s back up and talk a little bit about that murder rate. It’s low and for a size city as Nashville is, that’s a good thing. Why is the murder rate low?
You know, I wish I knew the complete, concrete answer, the complete formula — I don’t. I can give you factors that I know play a part, and one, we have to recognize outside some of the larger cities, and I won’t — for my friends that work in those cities, I won’t name those cities — but you know where the murder rate is out of control.
Homicides are trending down across the country. Here, I think that the aggressive work of our officers out there on the street — you know, I described what went on in 1975 when I was a patrol officer as opposed to what goes on today — so we interdict a lot of activity. I know that we interrupt people as they’re heading for criminal events. I know we’re disrupting drug dealers on the corner where we know that homicides are going to occur. I know that the work of our clergy in intervening, counseling — when we have a homicide involving, especially a juvenile, but persons involved that have connections with gang activity or drug activity, and we know there might be a retaliation — they work with us. They’re sort of our bridge to the community. Sometimes people will listen to this disinterested party, so to speak, as opposed to us.
We do a lot of work in terms of retaliation-type events. In other words, if we have an aggravated assault or if we have a homicide, and our intelligence people or our gang people tell us that there’s likely to be retaliation, then we focus on those persons that are likely to retaliate. You know, we attend the funerals, and both with uniformed officers and non-uniformed officers, to make sure that we disrupt anything that might occur.
So I don’t have a real good answer except to say that I know that our efforts, collectively across the precincts, and I know that the partnership with our clergy members and our neighborhood groups are a major part of that formula. When you look at homicides — and I hate to look at them as a category, because every one of them is unique, and every one of them leaves behind a wake of victims in terms of family members — but they are low; 80 would be the norm, so to speak. We’ve gone as high as, I think, 112 in one year some years back — 60 in 2010 was, I thought, the number astounded me as it popped off the page; 51 for last year. We’re running 49 for this year, so we’re on course to maintain a low level, but we certainly won’t — it’s not likely anyway — that we’ll be 51 or less. But in the ’60s when they were 45, 50 and in that range, if you do the math, Nashville’s population then was like in the 400,000 range, so if you adjust for population, the homicides back in the ’60s and ’70s and so forth would adjust up into the ’90s.
Your situation coming up in the department — you had a fairly good view of what the chief did. What’s the difference between that view and now that you’re coming up on a couple years of holding the position — what’s the difference in your perception of what you thought the chief was versus actually doing the job?
Well, I don’t know that anything has surprised me, in that since 2001, I have been either assistant chief or deputy chief or chief, so I’ve been in this room and in that office a lot, and even prior to that, as a lieutenant and a captain, I was there. I think that in past years, I analyzed problems and I gave the chiefs my thoughts, and I didn’t concern myself too much giving him the best information and advice I could, but I always knew there was somebody there that it was his responsibility to take my thoughts and my advice and filter it and combine it with the thoughts of other persons around him before final decisions were made.
So I have to make sure that I move from that mode into making sure that I gather as much information from the deputy chiefs or from anyone else before I make a major decision. And as I gather them around me for these decisions, I point out that this is not a democracy, we’re not going to vote on what occurs, but I do want to know what your opinion is, but most of all, I want to know how you came to that opinion so that I can analyze all your thoughts and make the best decision possible for the department. So I don’t think I’ve had any surprises, but I have had to change the way that I analyze my thoughts to make sure that I’m taking everybody’s thoughts into account.
There’s a political dimension to being chief, that being below that rank doesn’t necessarily carry in terms of dealing with the council and with the mayor — do you think you were prepared for some of the kind of ancillary duties that were going to come along?
I don’t think that — I don’t compare this job with being president of the United States or being a CEO of anything else, but I don’t think there’s really – there’s not a school that you go to, and there’s certainly not another job unless it’s another CEO job like this. So I don’t think there’s anything that I didn’t know, but I think maybe there was some things that I didn’t realize are put in conceptual form. So yes, there is a political side, and I always make the decision that I think is best for the department, best for the public. But I do take into account that I work for the mayor, and I do take into account that I answer to the council, so I want to make sure that not only do they know what my decision is, they know how I come to it and all the things that went into balancing out that decision. But I do take into account that I don’t want to burn any bridges with anybody across the county, any of our elected officials, any of our neighborhood group leaders, anybody that’s in a leadership role in Nashville.
When the mayor made this last push for property tax increase, one of the reasons he cited was the need for some teacher salary reasons, and to replace that federal grant that was going to run out. He came to us and made a very passionate case for the need to keep those officers on the streets. What went into your discussions with the mayor over the need to keep those officers or to fund that?
Again, just the facts, and that’s why that working with him, with Mayor Dean, has just been a great experience, and working with Rich Riebeling, the finance director, has been a great experience, because there’s no puffing that I have to do with them; there’s no exaggerations, I walk in and I say, “Here’s what we need to do. Here’s the resources we need to do the job that you want done, and we can do less with less resources, but here’s what we need.” Obviously, again, I never get everything that I put on the table, but I make sure I put it on the table so that they can analyze it and make the best decisions possible.
How much of a problem is overtime as far as the overall budget?
In staying within the budget? We’re right on course. The other overtime that we use, obviously, well, Special Events is a special budget so that we don’t take — we utilize that money so that we don’t take officers off the street for the Titans football game, the Christmas parades and things of that nature. There’s a certain amount of — in the financial world, it’s called discretionary overtime, but it’s not. It’s if an officer is at the scene of the crime at 3, he or she can’t go home right then until they get some relief. If it’s a homicide detective, you don’t just go home at the end of shift. If there’s a homicide in the middle of the night, then homicide investigators are called out. Youth Services, Sex Abuse ID, all across, so we know — I mean, that’s just mandatory, it’s in our orders.
We have a certain amount. What’s leftover we can use in a discretionary manner, and so that’s the reason we watch it very closely to make sure we’re not calling out too many people to try to minimize their court [time]. … We know there’s certain times that we do need extra people on the streets; you know, holidays, other events, and so that small amount leftover is actually discretionary and we can position our people where we need to be using that. Expenditure of overtime is, in the corporate world, utilizing overtime to hire, in most cases, up to 20 percent of your needs is well-founded physically, because taking on a new person to work those shifts, then you’ve got to pay all the fringe benefits that go with it. So to some degree, a small use of overtime is fiscally responsible.
You’re coming up on two years here. A lot of people would point out that you definitely have a different leadership style or maybe just personality than former Chief [Ronal] Serpas ... How is your style different?
Well, I think most everybody here has known me in one form or the other and worked in my command, because I’ve had all three bureaus, and so I’ve had occasion to — so they sort of know what I expect. I think most people, I mean, I draw some pretty sharp lines as to what behavior is expected and what work is expected, but what I try to drive down — and I think I’ve been somewhat successful — is you make the decisions. I want decisions made by the deputy chiefs and by the precinct commanders and the captains. Now, I take into account, and I tell people, “These are your decisions to make, and you’re going to make some bad decisions, but that’s OK. We’ll live with those. Just don’t make bad decisions twice. … Don’t make bad decisions on purpose.”
And so actually I tell them, “We’re going to make bad decisions,” because I consider their decisions my decisions, but those decisions, the precinct commanders, the captains, the deputy chiefs, don’t need to be sitting around waiting to see what the chief’s going to decide. Their needs are unique, and they need things done in a timely manner, and they’re closer to the process. I spend a lot of time with those individuals just walking them through decisions. “Tell me why did you come to this decision?” Or “Tell me all the factors that you’re going to put into making the decision that you’re facing,” and so I think that I’ve coached a good many of them on, “Here’s the thought processes in making those decisions. As long as you’ve done that, and as long as you can explain it to me, we’re going to be OK, even if it’s a decision that turns out not as well as we thought it would.”
Red light cameras have been a very hot topic in other cities. What’s your feeling on them, and is this something Nashville could look at?
I’m sure there’s some positive aspects to red light cameras, and we’ll evaluate things as they go along. I’m not seeing a need to push that idea forward, but obviously, it’s a law enforcement tool that’s out there that other cities are using, but I’m not seeing a need at this point to promote that idea.
Are there any specific needs you’re seeing right now that you don’t have that you could — you’re putting in some cameras in parts of the city ...
We have cameras — we don’t have red light cameras — and we’ll be expanding that, and like everything else, I don’t see that as a great priority more than I see the need to expand a lot of other tools and a lot of other resources that we have, but those are very valuable. We make use of information that we receive from our own cameras, certainly from surveillance cameras of businesses located at the scene of events, so that’s a very valuable law enforcement tool and we’ll continue to expand it. But I’m not seeing to make that a priority of expanding that over at the cost of expanding other tools and other resources.