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Apprehended, Then Befriended

Nashville cop arrests young man, then spends the next 2 years investing in his life

Dillard Smith and Steve Fouche met at gunpoint. Fouche, an officer with the Nashville police department, had his gun drawn. He was screaming for Smith to get on the ground. The pair had been locked in a pursuit that started on Interstate 40, where Fouche saw Smith speeding toward the White Bridge Road exit. Fouche flashed his blue lights and followed Smith as he darted to the West Nashville apartment he shared with his mother.

Smith ran inside. He was in his mother’s bedroom with his back against the wall when the police came in.

It was an intense moment with potentially lethal consequences. Smith felt trapped. He didn’t know where to go.

“In my head, it was pretty much over for me,” Smith said.

Surrender seemed like the only option. So he got on the ground.

Within minutes, he was sitting handcuffed in the back of Fouche’s cruiser. Overcome, Smith broke down.

Through tears, he traced his way through the moments that led him to the back of that police car. He had been arrested before on a series of low-level offenses. This arrest, on charges of marijuana possession and driving with a revoked license, would lead to a probation violation and jail time. It felt like rock bottom.

Fouche listened.

An unlikely friendship began in the back of a cop car.

The officer and his boss, Sgt. Noble Taylor, stayed in the parking lot for about an hour talking with Smith about life. Smith’s father died when he was 15, leaving behind anguish that drove bad behavior.

Their conversation on March 6, 2018, formed the bedrock of an against-allodds friendship. Today, the officer said he thinks of the young man as a surrogate son.

Two years removed from rock bottom, Smith describes the relationship as a lifeline that helped him rekindle his potential. It’s an opportunity he said many other black men in the criminal justice system don’t get.

“It’s surreal,” he said. “It gives hope for the future. It does.”

Fouche sees it as the ultimate distillation of a new strain of policing that emphasizes personal relationships over adversarial encounters.

“I don’t think there’s anything I wouldn’t do for him,” Fouche said. “And now he’s doing great on his own.”

Over lunch and long hikes, the officer and the arrestee came up with a plan.

Fouche gave Smith his personal cellphone number after that first talk in 2018. He offered to help, but he didn’t expect to hear back.

A few days later, Smith called.

“I knew I couldn’t do it alone, and I knew at some point I was going to need help from somebody,” Smith said. “I didn’t have anywhere else to go.”

They met for lunches and long walks on the trails at Percy Warner Park.

Together, they came up with a plan.

Fouche set strict ground rules.

No more broken laws. And no deviating from the road map they devised.

Early on, the officer assigned homework: a book report on the self-help bestseller “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.”

When Smith turned in his sevenpage paper, Fouche immediately recognized the introspective young man’s intelligence.

“He needed somebody to believe in him,” Fouche said.

Fouche helped Smith get a job. He talked to prosecutors who agreed to suspend the charges as long as Smith played by the rules. And he worked alongside an adviser to plan Smith’s return to school at Tennessee State University.

During a meeting last month at NY Pie, Fouche, 46, reflected on Smith’s meteoric growth.

“How he has turned himself around — it’s humbling,” Fouche said. “You keep on this track and you’ll help more people than any middle-aged white cop ever could.”

Smith, now 23, is pursuing his degree full time at TSU. He dreams of starting his own business, maybe in real estate.

Relationship an exemplar of new approach to policing.

Fouche tied his work with Smith to a community policing initiative in a crime-heavy swath of the West Precinct. Police credit the program with a 40% drop in violent crime and a 27% drop in calls for police in the area since 2017.

The seven cops on the team with Fouche take an unorthodox approach to their work.

They help neighbors set up Christmas trees in their living rooms. If someone is struggling with past-due utility bills, officers will link them with a local charity that can help.

Fouche said he was carrying an elderly man’s groceries last year when he noticed the man didn’t have a bed. He got money from the Fraternal Order of Police to buy one.

“It’s not normal policing,” said Sgt. Jason Picanzo, who supervises the effort. “Other teams and departments, that’s a side of policing that they don’t get yet because it’s so new.”

Establishing goodwill with a community pays dividends later, Picanzo said. People feel more comfortable cooperating with police to stop crime in the area.

The work was so successful that the U.S. Department of Justice asked Nashville to present its strategies at an International Association of Chiefs of Police conference in October. Picanzo said the bond between Smith and Fouche is a prime example of his team’s approach.

“Someone took the time to invest into Dillard and meet needs for him,” Picanzo said. “It’s the backbone of how we’ve gotten to where we are.”

West Precinct Cmdr. David Corman said the work from the community engagement team inspired him to double down on the effort. He reassigned another group of officers to replicate the project in another crime-heavy part of the precinct.

“They’re absolutely contagious,” Corman said. “I absolutely believe that what they’re doing is helping us combat crime and repair relationships, and quite frankly the reputation of the MNPD.”

Fouche said his participation in the program, and in Smith’s life, is personal.

“There’ve been a lot of people who have helped me and looked past my bull,” Fouche said. “Maybe that’s what I was trying to do with Dillard.”

Their close bond is particularly noteworthy as the city reckons with unprecedented tensions between the police department and the community. Activists have accused officers of racism and misconduct, and have ramped up efforts to hold the department accountable.

Smith said the conflict is far too complex for a one-size-fits-all solution. But he said his relationship with Fouche shows progress is possible.

The chance to talk — and be heard — made all the difference.

“Language and conversation and understanding on a human level is what’s missing,” he said. “In my case, they took the time to find out what it was that was really going on behind closed doors.

“It helped them understand that I wasn’t a bad kid.”

It’s easy for Smith to forget how unusual his relationship with the cop who arrested him might seem. When they’re together, inside jokes and life lessons bounce between them at lightning speed.

But others notice.

A man watched warily as the pair walked up to Fouche’s police cruiser after their meeting at NY Pie.

Smith assured the man all was well.

“I’m getting in the front this time.”

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