Mayoral candidate Larry Grohn said Friday that he misspoke earlier this week in comments he made about the Chattanooga Police Department.
Grohn currently represents District 4 on the Chattanooga City Council, but is running for mayor instead of seeking re-election to the council.
The comments prompted a rebuke from Mayor Andy Berke and troubled some officers.
At a Wednesday morning candidate forum, when asked about what issues drive crime and what can be done to decrease crime, Grohn's allotted speaking time ran out as he said, "This police department harasses the gang members and doesn't take care of the crime problem."
Grohn's entire response to the question can be seen here from 27:31 to 30:40.
Later at the forum, Berke said that he "fundamentally disagree[d]" that officers harass gang members.
On Thursday, Berke's campaign sent out a statement criticizing Grohn's comments. Berke also sent a letter to the heads of two police unions reiterating his disagreement and telling officers that he has their backs.
Grohn also sent out a follow-up statement addressed to all the officers of the Chattanooga Police Department. In it, he said he's worked to develop special relationships with the city's first responders, that he steadfastly supports them and that the comment about harassment needed to be clarified.
During interviews with Nooga.com Friday, both Berke and Grohn addressed the situation further.
"A mayor needs to back up and support our police officers," Berke said. "They risk their lives every day. For us to make progress as a city, we need to support them. I thought it was inappropriate for a City Council person and mayoral candidate to say anything different."
Berke also reiterated comments he made at the forum about work he's done to better the police department during his first term, including smoothing over tensions between the mayor's office and police officers—a situation he said he inherited when he took office.
And he said he's worked to correct pay inequities and make sure police have the equipment they need to do their jobs and stay safe.
Grohn fired back Friday and said the mayor's response to the situation shows that he's feeling vulnerable. He said that the liberal mayor was attempting to come off as a hard-on-crime conservative.
And he praised the police department.
"Our police department goes out and does a great job," he said. "They are doing the job they need to be doing. I fully support that."
He said that his comments Wednesday were meant to criticize Berke and the Violence Reduction Initiative the mayor has championed. And he meant to outline what other changes needed to be made to help the crime problem, such as training for living-wage jobs and increasing affordable housing.
Grohn said he's been frustrated that he hasn't been able to get documentation about the social services aspect of the VRI that aims to help rehabilitate gang members.
"Without the social services side of the VRI working, all efforts of the police department are going to naught," Grohn said.
He also said that he's talked to officers who are frustrated that when they make arrests, the criminals often face little jail time, and he cited a newspaper article on that issue.
But Berke said that Grohn's comments at the forum speak for themselves and show he's out of touch with what's happening in the city's streets.
"He's openly questioned how our officers work and what they do," Berke said. "We need officers who arrest gang members who break the law, and I'm going to keep supporting those officers that do."
Leaders of both police unions—the International Brotherhood of Police Officers and the Fraternal Order of Police—addressed Grohn's comments.
IBPO President Michael Newton said he was shocked when he started hearing about the comments. After initially only seeing a short clip of what happened, he went back and watched the full answer for more context. And he still found the statements troubling.
He also said that Grohn called him to apologize and explain his statements were meant to criticize the mayor and his policies.
"That's the issue that comes to the forefront," Newton said. "When you have political campaigns that go to smearing other candidates, sometimes it gets out of hand and there are unintentional victims caught in the crossfire. We were an unintentional victim of his smear campaign of the mayor."
Newton did say he agreed that—like any program—there are strong and weak points of the VRI. And much of those factors are out of officers' control, such as how quickly criminals make bail, how long it takes someone to go to trial and how long sentences are.
"Grohn understands what the issue is, but he's trying to make it the mayor's fault," he also said.
FOP President Sean O'Brien said he was disappointed and concerned with what Grohn said.
"If the issue is with the mayor and the mayor's initiative of the VRI or the police administration's position in terms of the VRI, then articulate that," he said.