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Chief Ronal Serpas’ Plan for a Safer Nashville Is to Pull You Over Early and Often

Chief Serpas' Plan for a Safer Nashville: Pull You Over Early and Often



Just after midnight, in the bowels of the Metro police complex, the DUI room is busy. This windowless cinder block sanctuary is no bigger than a child's bedroom, forcing a line of cops and suspected drunks to clog the hall.

Hank Stone slumps in a chair next to the Intoximeter, a rectangular hunk of machinery the approximate size of a printer. A battered baseball cap sits askew on his head with the words "Official Irish Drinking Team" stitched to the front. His eyes are bleary from crying in the back of a squad car.

Stone was found behind the wheel of his '85 Olds after running a red light at Trinity Lane and Gallatin Road. He'd collided with another driver, leaving pieces of shiny trim and shards of glass across the intersection. The other driver was taken to the hospital with minor injuries; Stone was taken here to blow into a long tube attached to the Intoximeter.

In a matter of minutes the machine will spit out a reading, telling the arresting officer if Stone is drunk. He employs the ubiquitous defense of drunk drivers everywhere. "I had one beer," Stone claims.

"Must have been a pretty big one," responds arresting officer Foster Hite.

Patrolman Sammy Johnson sticks his head in the door and laughs. "Lemme see your eyes," he says, examining Stone's watery peepers to gauge the degree of drunkenness. "Thirteen," Johnson announces, his guesstimate for how much over the .08 limit Stone will blow.

The Intoximeter beeps and a small screen begins to flash. It reads .122.

"Close!" Hite says to his colleague. But Johnson is already heading back to his squad car, where he will attempt to add to his tally of 140 DUI arrests this year.

These men compose ground zero in a concerted effort by Chief Ronal Serpas to change the way Nashville polices its citizens. Think of it as Tennessee's version of the broken window theory, made famous by New York City Police Commisioner William Bratton. The rationale was that if police focused on little things like graffiti and loitering, neighborhoods would be revitalized from the ground up. But in car-centric Nashville, it could be more accurately described as the broken taillight method.

It began in 2004, when Serpas was named chief. Cops began pulling over any driver who was even remotely in violation of traffic laws, hoping to find drunks, people with outstanding warrants, guns and drugs. The stops built a statistical base that is used to shape everything from staffing levels to which neighborhoods get the heaviest patrols.

Today, law enforcement peeks into the lives of tens of thousands of Nashvillians each year, looking into their eyes, peering into their cars and—in around 40 percent of cases—sending them on their way without a ticket.

Serpas says that the method has proven effective in fighting crime and reducing injury. "They've tripled the number of DUI arrests and they've reduced fatalities by 25 percent," says Kendell Poole, head of the Governor's Highway Safety Council, a federally funded office administered by the state.

But some officers say the focus on stops and stats keeps them from doing real policing.

For one weekend each month, almost every cop—regardless of rank or assignment —must put on a uniform and patrol. The initiative, called Mission One, has certainly boosted the department's traffic and DUI numbers. But it also pulls detectives away from more pressing cases like burglary and domestic assault, where the department faces overwhelming caseloads.

"Tickets bring in revenue and helping victims doesn't," says one officer who spoke on condition of anonymity. "We have to set aside our cases and investigations to make traffic stops. I don't see how that makes anyone safer."

In addition, there are legitimate civil liberties issues. Average Nashvillians are much more likely to be stopped by the police and have their car searched for little more than driving a few miles over the speed limit.

Which leads to the natural question: Is Serpas making Nashville safer, or creating a police state in the name of better stats?

By some measures, Nashville is safer than it was five years ago. Reported crimes have decreased in each of the four years that Serpas has served as chief. The burglary rate hasn't been this low since 1968; property crimes are at a 10-year minimum.

Serpas and others attribute the gains to increased traffic enforcement.

"Before I got here at the end of 2003, police officers in Nashville averaged about 2,020 traffic stops a week," the chief says. "Today we average between 5,500 and 6,000 traffic stops a week."

It's not by accident. Serpas pressures officers to make more and more stops each year. The strategy has yielded results. Deaths from alcohol-related accidents have plummeted, and there's been a nine-percent decrease in accidents overall.

The chief further argues that the stops aren't random. Enforcement is targeted to specific areas where accidents are highest, crimes are occurring and drunk drivers are most likely to be found. He tells his officers, "I don't need you fishing where the fishing is good. I don't need you doing the speed traps. I need you to be doing it where accidents are happening and where people are being hurt.... We want to know that [officers] are successful in quality stuff. Not just how many cars you stopped or arrest warrants you served. Did it make a difference? Did it reduce crime? Did it reduce fear of crime? Did it reduce calls for service? Did it reduce accidents with injuries?"

Serpas spent years with the New Orleans Police Department, and his voice still carries the lazy, rounded inflection of Louisiana. A large, jowly man, he initially comes off as a central casting Southern cop. But give him the floor for a stat lecture on law enforcement, and he'll transform into a management wonk before your eyes.

His words are peppered with corporate-speak like "organized synergy," "efficiencies to effectiveness," "standard derivatives" and "replicatable methods." He also appears to enjoy the sound of his own voice, dropping the occasional quote that seems suspiciously pre-fabricated. Some officers privately joke that it's impossible to get Serpas off the podium at press conferences.

In the past year he has published a series of papers articulating his strategy, some of which even department PR flack Don Aaron doesn't understand. "You gotta be an algebraic professor to understand that thing," says Aaron, referring to one of Serpas' analyses.

Perhaps the chief's greatest achievement is the increase in DUI arrests. In 2003, before Serpas took power, the city nailed 3,297 drunks. By last year, that number had risen to 4,986. This widened net has caught many a Nashville celeb, from Steve McNair to Jevon Kearse. It's also twice snared Serpas' own son, Dustin.

His first arrest came in 2004, when the then 26-year-old was found by Vanderbilt police passed out in the front seat of his car with the engine running. The second arrest came a few weeks later, when he was clocked doing 88 mph in a 55 zone. His blood alcohol was .15 percent, nearly twice the legal limit.

Cases like this—and that of Hank Stone of the Irish Drinking Team, who's been arrested more than a dozen times, at least twice for DUI—involve the kind of recidivists who pose a legitimate threat to other drivers.

But by casting such a wide net, drivers who would otherwise have no contact with the law often find themselves in handcuffs. That means the yuppie who has an extra glass of wine at dinner, the dad who orders an extra Bud while watching the Predators.

They aren't exactly hardened criminals, but to Serpas the guy who blows a .08 is the same as the one who hits a .13.

"If you blow a .08 and you kill somebody, or you blow a .08 and the car you hit catches on fire and burns someone beyond recognition for the rest of their life, that's a big deal."

The chief uses his son's arrests as an example, saying they allowed his family to discover Dustin's drinking problem. "None of us knew," says Serpas. "A lot of people say, 'Oh, [Serpas] can't even raise his own kid.' Now wait a minute. His mother was a nurse, his stepmother is a nurse and I'm a police officer. My son's behavior never occurred around the family.... A lot of people who confront addiction are not aware of how devastating that behavior is until something happens."

Rosa Parks Blvd.—between Jefferson Street and James Robertson Parkway—is a gently sloping avenue that runs past the Farmers Market. At the bottom of the hill is a small street running behind the Bruton Snuff Factory. On many a weekday morning, this is where you'll find an officer lying in wait behind a stand of trees and bushes, radar gun in hand.

It's a road popular with state employees hurrying to work. It's also the perfect speed trap, where as many as a half-dozen cars will be pulled over at a single time.

Turn off of Rosa Parks, heading to the interstate on Jefferson Street, and you will encounter another speed trap, just as you accelerate to crest the steep incline of the Jefferson Street Bridge.

When operations like these target working stiffs instead of genuine criminals, it's hard to feel good about Serpas' strategy. Talk to almost anyone in town, and you'll hear stories of being pulled over for not wearing a seatbelt or going a scant four mph over the speed limit.

Trisha Fogle is a friendly young singer-songwriter who waits tables at a West End chain restaurant. She's not exactly Public Enemy No. 1. She lives near I-440 and West End, a spot notorious for DUI stops and hyper-vigilant traffic enforcement.

"The police stand in the middle of the road and point that radar gun at you," she says. "It's kind of scary."

When she drives home from work, images of police cruisers and radar guns are always in her mind. Once, a patrol car followed her down the street at night as she was walking to her door. As she put her key in the lock, the officer turned a floodlight on, shining it directly at her.

"My heart raced," she says, until the cop turned off the light and moved on. But in retrospect, the incident made her feel safer.

"I would rather they [keep us safe] than not," she says. "It is annoying, but maybe being annoyed is the price you have to pay for safety."

Nashville drivers aren't the only ones with mixed feelings.

In off-the-record conversations, cops also express frustration with the emphasis on traffic.

One says he's seen officers with "five or six calls stacked up"—meaning calls from citizens in need of police aid—"and [the officer] will still stop and write a ticket.... They'll do anything to pump the numbers up to make the monster happy."

Another cop says traffic duty takes his detectives away from work that could save lives.

"I have to furnish my detectives to go out on Friday and Saturday nights in uniform to do traffic stops," he says. "They are overworked on cases as it is and now they have to put their victims on hold."

This is especially true with Metro's domestic violence unit, which deals with the city's most damaged and vulnerable victims. So far this year, the unit has investigated 10,386 cases—with a staff of only 14 detectives. It's the kind of overwhelming caseload that ensures some incidents will only get cursory attention. But once a month, these detectives are nonetheless pulled from battered wives and partners to write traffic tickets.

Captain Rita Baker, who runs the domestic violence division, is a caring, energetic leader. But she's not keen to talk about her squad's auxiliary traffic duties. "You're asking questions that could get me into trouble," she says.

Violent crimes like murder and robbery have spiked since Serpas took power. He commissioned a study comparing crime stats in 15 cities similar to Nashville. Nashville ranked third in calls for service for Part I offenses—rape, murder, robbery, aggravated assault, arson, burglary, larceny and auto theft. Nashville also had the highest number of violent Part I offenses per officer, and trailed only Kansas City and St. Louis in reported assaults.

The good news is that Nashville had high clearance rates—meaning a crime is solved or found not to be a crime —for assault, robbery and burglary. The bad news is that the clearance rates for homicide, rape and auto theft were below average.

Nashville also had high numbers in another category: unfounded offenses. In police-speak, these entail calls that turn out to be much ado about nothing. Yet rank-and-file cops say the relentless pressure to produce impressive numbers causes supervisors to label some crimes unfounded, even when they aren't.

"When the numbers aren't low enough," says one, "the bosses just change the numbers, victims be damned."

The pressure for traffic stops is exacerbated because rewards are closely tied to those numbers.

"You're in competition with other officers to see who writes more traffic tickets, who does more [stop-and-frisks], who gets more arrests," says one officer. "That's the only thing you get credit for to keep your car, your day off and your assigned zone. If you don't have high enough numbers on these three areas, you don't keep your zone, your take-home car or your days off.... It's all about numbers."

Some detectives say that the relentless focus on quick statistical improvements makes it impossible to give their full attention to investigations that can take weeks of legwork. They worry about the crimes that fall through the cracks and time wasted on misdemeanor arrests.

But Serpas doesn't want to hear it. He's convinced that his plan is the best thing to happen to the Nashville PD since Metro's inception.

"Once a month, everybody's got to go back and do the core mission, which keeps everybody linked," he says. "So when the police officer sees that detective put that uniform on and come do what he does, there's less opportunity to be divisive between each other."

Still, some are unconvinced.

"They don't care about the officers," says one detective of his bosses. "They don't care about the citizens. All they care about is making the chief look good."

Officer Foster Hite makes the chief look very good. In 30 years on the force, he's worked vice, done drug buys and investigated biker gangs. These days he drives a patrol car, cruising the streets for speeders and drunks. Most weekends Hite works an overnight shift with a portable breathalyzer machine riding shotgun.

Metro receives about $1 million a year from the Governor's Highway Safety Office, the agency that brought you the "Booze It and Lose It" campaign. Most of that money pays for overtime for officers like Hite. Cops call it "working the grant," and every Thursday through Sunday night, that's just what Hite does.

"I had 170 DUI arrests last year," he says as he cruises Nolensville Road. He also wrote more than 3,000 tickets. "Not bad for an AARP member."

Hite is a fastidious man with a neatly trimmed moustache and small, close-set eyes. He brakes for every yellow light and never swears. In his 53 years, he's never had a drink or smoked.

Tonight, he's on the trail of a Nissan Altima with its lights off, headed north on Nolensville Road. Stopping a car for an infraction like this is exactly what Serpas wants. It offers a chance to run the car's tags and check if the driver has outstanding warrants.

Hite accelerates to 80 mph, hits the flashers and pulls the Nissan over in front of an electronics store. The driver is 19-year-old Cesar Hernandez. He's from Nashville, the car is in his father's name and Cesar is listed as a co-owner on the title. But he's never had a driver's license.

Hite has to arrest him. "I know it's a waste of time," he says, "but I can't let him go. What if he's not really Cesar Hernandez?"

Hite frisks the teen and searches the car, finding nothing but an iPod and stuffed Chucky doll in the backseat.

"Why wouldn't you take the time to get your license?" Hite asks.

"I got school," Hernandez says. "I've been really busy."

Hite waits 30 minutes for a tow truck to arrive before taking Hernandez downtown. Then the officer will spend an hour-and-a-half on paperwork and waiting for a night-court judge to hear the case.

"All this," says Hite, "because that guy didn't have his lights on."

It may seem like a waste of time to everyday citizens, but lawyers aren't complaining. "I love Serpas and I love the DUI enforcement," says attorney Bryan Lewis. "For DUI lawyers it's a wonderful retirement plan."

Attorneys who specialize in DUIs say business has mushroomed over the last four years. But this has led to staggering court delays.

"It's clogging up the court system," Lewis says. "All these DUI cases are getting mixed in with murders, rapes, car-jackings and armed robberies. The DUI cases keep getting bumped down the docket."

Lewis represented one client who was arrested in 2005 and did not get a trial until three years later, where she was acquitted. He says he was lucky to even get a trial that quickly. "It was crazy," he says.

But if it seems Orwellian to some, it's perfectly reasonable to the officers who've gathered at a small Italian restaurant in Belle Meade at 3 a.m. They're winding down their shifts with sandwiches and sodas while the restaurant's owner snoozes away in a chair.

Hite, Officer Sammy Johnson and Captain Michelle Donegan used to work together in vice. They all agree that while Serpas' plan is imperfect, it's still the right path.

"Of course it's a good idea," says an animated Johnson. "I don't care if you're right at the [blood alcohol] limit. You are a danger to me, my family and everyone on the road."

Donegan agrees. She's a pretty woman in her early forties, with long brown hair swept back off her neck. "I am so sick of seeing dead bodies," she says.

Sgt. Gary Kemper is among the few whose job security isn't predicated on writing tickets. He runs Metro's gang unit, and each night his squad hits the streets looking for intelligence, not speeders.

"My cops make 50 stops a night and not one ticket will be written," Kemper says. "I get the CompStat reports but you don't need a piece of paper to tell you where the crime is. Not if you're a good police officer."

The gang unit is one of the few in Metro that isn't driven by stats. Kemper says his bosses are not interested in the number of arrests he makes, calls he answers or quantity of drugs he confiscates. His unit is proof that police are good for more than nailing speeders on their way to work.

When a murder happens in Nashville, detectives often call Kemper. It was the gang unit that brought down Nashville's MS-13 faction, responsible for more than 20 shootings and seven murders.

The sergeant is a walking encyclopedia of gang minutiae; he can turn the slightest squiggle of spray-paint on a phone pole into a Rosetta stone of gang activity.

"A six-pointed star is your Gangster Disciples," he says, driving slowly through a working-class neighborhood in Madison. "Now a five-pointed star, that's the Blood gangs."

Like many cops, his world is, by necessity, evenly divided between "good kids," "thugs" and "turds." Kemper's view is further stratified by the nature of his work. He prefers football to basketball because the NFL cracked down on end-zone celebrations, where players made gestures that appeared similar to those made by gang members. He thinks that standard school attire in public schools is "the best thing Metro has ever done" because it scrambled a gang's ability to enter schools. When he sees Tarheel Blue, he thinks of the Rollin' 40s. When he sees dark blue, he thinks Rollin' 60s. Blue and yellow? "That's gonna be the 98 Mafia Crips."

It's after midnight and Kemper is trawling a neighborhood off of Nolensville, near Whitsett Road. It's a known gang spot, and members of the Laotian Crips live nearby. Four teenage boys are standing around a car, hanging out on this unseasonably chilly night. They wear baggy khakis, Chuck Taylors and the thin, wispy mustaches seen on 16-year-olds the world over.

Kemper calls the rest of his squad to heel. Before long the block is crowded with the late-model SUVs and pickups of Kemper's officers.

They frisk the teens and toss the car, taking their time in doing it. Kemper talks to the teens as if he knows them, because he does. He has spoken to at least one of them before, a short kid who the officers refer to as Tattoo due to his resemblance to the character from Fantasy Island.

"You still got those house slippers I saw you wearing last time?" Kemper asks, "Those were funny, man!"

The search turns up nothing but some marijuana seeds. Kemper turns the teens loose. "They're more valuable to me on the street," he says. He knows he'll see them again, when they may be holding something real, like a gun or serious drug-weight. Kemper can use that pinch as leverage for more information.

"I could give a crap about a smoke sack or one rock," he says. "I'm willing to let someone like that work it off [with the DA's office] and trade for information. That's police work."

He and his men load up and head down Nolensville Road toward some Section 8 housing. The rest of the evening will be quiet, mostly cruising hangouts and working kids on the street for information until the unit's shift ends around 3 a.m. They will make at least one arrest, but they won't stop a speeder or find any drunk drivers. And they will be doing their best to keep Nashville safe.

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