There’s a different air about the Metro Nashville Police Department these days. It looks about the same, functions about the same, but it lacks the polarizing chief who was as suspicious of television cameras as his detectives are of thieves and dealers.
The top-cop transition came at the worst time: in the midst of May’s flood recovery, while officers worked 12-hour shifts without days off, some even while dealing with their own personal losses.
In the rather sudden absence of former Chief Ronal Serpas, who left Nashville May 6 to become police chief in his hometown of New Orleans, then-Deputy Chief Steve Anderson worked to stabilize a department churning out overtime to stabilize the city. At the time, Anderson said he had no interest in applying for the chief’s job, as it would be a distraction for him and the department in the middle of flood recovery efforts.
“I wanted the transition to be as smooth as possible,” Anderson said. “I didn’t want any of the attention focused on me.”
On Thursday, the attention was fully focused on Anderson, as Mayor Karl Dean removed the "interim" tag from Anderson's title and named the veteran law enforcement official Metro's full-time chief of police.
Only two weeks ago, Dean’s office instructed the city’s human resources department to advertise, finally, that it was accepting applications for the chief job only from within the police department’s upper management. At that point, Anderson’s mind had changed.
“While I wanted the transition back in May to be as seamless as possible, we’re in a transition position as we speak,” Anderson said. “We have two new precincts coming on; we’re building a crime lab; we’re growing the department. So I’m thinking that in looking around at the department, that to stay the course is the best thing for the department.”
As Anderson warmed up to the job over the seven months since Serpas left town, so too did it seem the department grew comfortable with his leadership.
“What we saw was a seamless transition,” said Deputy Chief Damian Huggins, “where we had the same leadership teams that were in place and the same people that were on the street.”
It was the two-way communication, Huggins said, that helped Anderson gain the confidence of the officers on the street.
In early April, the Nashville Fraternal Order of Police released results from a survey it conducted that officials there said contained evidence of low morale, high stress, communication problems
and concerns over how long it took the department to resolve disciplinary issues.
But at least some of those bumps appeared to have been smoothed in the past several months with Anderson. Nashville FOP President Sgt. Robert Weaver said his organization has enjoyed better communication and a good working relationship with Anderson since he’s been running the department.
Prior to Serpas’ departure, some members said in the FOP survey that the former chief communicated direction to officers ineffectively. That may have improved a bit under Anderson, Weaver said, something that can be tied to the working relationships between the commanders and Anderson during his time running the Field Operations Bureau, in which he oversaw about three-quarters of the force, including all six precincts.
As well, police have settled several disciplinary cases still crawling through the system during the past seven months, according to Weaver.
“He’s understood the value of moving cases along and getting them resolved so that everybody benefits from a case moving efficiently,” Weaver said, “not so quick that a member’s rights are trampled on, but moving forward so it’s not sitting over their head for a lengthy period of time.”
Newly appointed Deputy Chief Todd Henry, who also noted improving morale in the department, attributes some of the difference to seeing one of the department’s own ascend the ranks.
“[It] seems to be … that people are a little bit more relaxed,” Henry said. “I believe that the frontline troops all the way through the chain of command have immense confidence in Chief Anderson. He did come from this agency.”
Henry added that Anderson’s 35 years on the Metro Nashville force resonate with the officers. The fact Anderson started out at MNPD as they did only helps.
“In police circles, that’s always a good thing — right, wrong or indifferent,” Henry said.
More cops, more money
When Serpas became Nashville’s police chief in January 2004, he brought changes to the department, most notably a new focus on statistics-based policing. That became controversial rather quickly, as complaints about officers’ focus on smaller, less significant acts piled up while bigger crimes continued. The same general accountability and stats-driven management philosophy remains in place under Anderson; however, Weaver said the urgency for officers in the streets to chase down those stats is still there but without the emergency attitude that previously existed. A Metro internal audit of the MNPD’s crime statistics and the methods of gathering them is due out soon, most likely in January.
Moving forward, the top cops in the department — with Anderson in the permanent role as chief — must figure out how to continue to grow (both sworn officers and civilian personnel) during a Metro hiring freeze.
Through attrition, civilian support positions within the department saw more and more vacancies, which is causing strain, particularly in the records, tow-in and identification divisions, according to Henry. The department would have to request to open the hiring process through Metro human resources, and the city’s finance department would need to approve some budget room to fill support positions.
The department is also adding two new precincts scheduled for January 2012 — one in the old Peterbilt facility in Madison and another in southern Davidson County, between Nolensville Pike and Hillsboro Pike south of Interstate 40 to Williamson County.
The MNPD added some 60 sworn officers to its ranks this year through the COPS grant, but to open one of the new precincts will require 58 more officers and two civilian employees in administrative roles.
“We’re already in discussions with the Department of Finance about how to accomplish that,” Anderson said.
They’ll also be addressing specific crime issues, such as the rise in burglaries across the county this year.
“We got hit hard this year on burglaries,” Henry said, “so we need to work with all of our partners in the criminal justice system — probation, parole, the DA’s office — to find a way to rehabilitate or keep some of these persistent burglars and thieves in jail longer.”
In the short term, the rise in burglaries is something Anderson said the department must address through the assessment and distribution of resources, two things police have at their disposal regardless of budget.
“We have to take into account the economy,” Anderson said, “and as it may affect crime across the city, we have to be even more focused on where we put our proactive resources,” such as Flex Teams and Crime Suppression Units that target specific areas of crime.