Written by: Hannah Johnson
Almost daily, followers of the Collegedale Police Department’s (CPD) social media platforms receive community announcements and updates about officers’ responses to 911 calls, vehicle crashes and other city safety concerns. The department’s constant and transparent online communication became a priority in 2021 after Jack Sapp took over as chief of police following a controversial period when former leadership instituted a media blackout, according to Assistant Chief of Police Jamie Heath, who now also serves as the CPD’s lead public information officer (PIO).
According to Heath, Sapp began his career with the CPD as a reserve officer in 2003. Over the following two decades, he worked his way up the ranks. Sapp is the ninth chief of police since the founding of the City of Collegedale and the CPD in 1968.
In an interview with the Accent, Heath said former police leadership prohibited staff from posting departmental information online. When Sapp became chief, he wanted to “lift that veil” and be more open with the public. Heath said Sapp has gone through media relations and PIO training, and he came into leadership with an understanding of public communication that previous administrations did not have.
Prior to the CPD’s media blackout being lifted under Sapp’s leadership, the department dealt with many challenges, including lawsuits and the termination of some officers. In February of 2021, former Collegedale Chief of Police Brian Hickman resigned from his position after a Hamilton County Sheriff’s Internal Affairs investigation concluded that he pursued a suspect in his personal vehicle, according to a previous Accent article.
Later that year, the City of Collegedale reached a settlement agreement with four former Collegedale police officers who filed a lawsuit against the city, according to a Chattanoogan article. The lawsuit claimed that the officers were removed from the department for complaining about a “ticket quota system.” In 2021, they received a $412,500 settlement from the city.
According to Heath, lawsuits damaged the CPD’s public relations and created a need within the department to rebuild trust with the community.
“You can’t put your agency on a blackout,” Heath said. “You have to get your information out.”
Under Sapp’s leadership, the CPD has actively used social media to be more open with the public. The department re-opened its Facebook page and created accounts on Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, Youtube and Nextdoor, according to Heath. The accounts are run by the department’s PIOs.
Collegedale Commissioner Tonya Sadler wrote in an email to the Accent that she helped start the CPD’s Facebook page when she served as a PIO between 2013 and 2019.
“I’m very pleased to see that it’s still a tool being utilized to engage with our community,” she wrote. “I’m a fierce advocate for transparency and accessibility, and this outreach on social media furthers those goals.”
In addition to daily activity updates and community announcements, the CPD releases quarterly annual reports on its social media pages.
“You hear ‘Collegedale stops a car and gives them a ticket for driving two miles over the speed limit’ or ‘Collegedale doesn’t do anything; they’re just ticket writers,’ but until you sit back and look into our quarterly reports that actually [show] what we are doing, see what the tickets are being written for, see what the facts are, you are going to keep going to make those assumptions,” Heath said. “I’ll put out every quarter the actual report itself so people can see it in black and white on the paper.”
Sapp also pushed for increased media relations when he came into leadership, according to Heath. When the former leadership put the department in a media blackout, several local news agencies “took a sledgehammer” to the department, he said. Since that time, the CPD has worked to develop relationships with journalists and local news outlets.
“You can’t put your agency on a blackout. You have to get your information out.”
“If you don’t have the whole story, you are going to write what you know,” Heath explained. “Our very first action when we lifted that veil was to reach out specifically to those journalists and to be an open book.”
Heath said the CPD has not only been trying to increase its transparency online but has also gotten more engaged with the community in recent years. It has experienced several positive outcomes from its increased involvement, Heath said. For example, the department has been invited to sit on different Q&A panels organized by community organizations and recently created a school resource officer (SRO) position for Collegedale Academy in the aftermath of the March 27 mass shooting at The Covenant School in Nashville, which resulted in the deaths of three 9-year-old children and three adults.
“Private schools can be hesitant when inviting the government into their schools,” Heath said. “After the unfortunate event in Nashville, Tennessee, this year we started really talking. We ended up creating an agreement between Collegedale Academy and the City of Collegedale to create an SRO position. This is proof that what Chief Sapp is doing, as far as the transparency since 2021, is working.”
Sapp also created the Round Table Advisory Committee, which consisted of police officers from different peer groups within the agency, a commissioner, a representative from Southern Adventist University and a community member, according to Heath. However, the committee no longer exists due to a new state law that places municipal committees with oversight over law enforcement officers and practices under the control of elected governing entities instead of respective law enforcement agencies. According to Heath, city leadership advised the CPD to change the round table to meet the requirements of the new law or disband it. The department elected to do the latter.
Heath said Sapp has been pushing for the CPD to gain accreditation through the Tennessee Law Enforcement Accreditation Program (TLEA), which was created under the direction of the Tennessee Association of Chiefs of Police.
TLEA accreditation would set increased standards of accountability for the department, as auditors would visit every three years to make sure the department is carrying out its duties. The CPD expects to be audited in three years, after which it could receive its first TLEA accreditation.