When new Police Chief Ronal Serpas declared publicly that he believes missing teen Tabitha Tuders didn’t run away, he didn’t just comfort her parentshe made it clear to both his force and all of Nashville that he’s a new kind of boss. Unlike both acting Police Chief Deborah Faulkner, who resigned last week, and former Chief Emmett Turner, Serpas is more visible, outspoken and involved in day-to-day cases. He’s the police chief Tabitha Tuders needed the day she disappeared from her East Nashville neighborhood.
Last Friday, Serpas held a press conference during which he announced that not only does he believe that the missing girl was abducted, but that the case will be the department’s top priority. “I’ve been here for a week,” he said. “And in my mind she’s not a runaway.”
It took the police department and then-acting Chief Deborah Faulkner months to come to the same conclusion. After Tuders disappeared from her East Nashville home on April 29, the police department insisted that she might have fled on her own, effectively dampening public interest in the case. In fact, Tuders, 13, earned straight As in her latest report card, left all her money behind in her room and had made plans with her friends later that week. A’s Serpas quickly realized within days of being sworn in, Tuders hardly fit the profile of a runaway.
“After talking to the detectives, I don’t believe she ran away,” the chief tells the Scene. “I believe that given her background with her family, what happened that week, I just don’t believe she ran away.”
Under Faulkner, the police department lagged at keeping Tabitha’s parents, Bo and Debra, updated about the case. Sometimes, the Tuders first learned about new developments by turning on the local news. And police were often slow to follow up on leads. In fact, it may have been the department’s handling of the Tuders case that partly undermined Faulkner’s candidacy for the job. (She failed to make the short list from which Mayor Bill Purcell chose Serpas.)
Meeting last week with the chief let the Tuders know that the investigation into their missing daughter wouldn’t stall.
“It made us feel good to meet Chief Serpas,” says Debra Tuders. “Chief Faulkner never came out and visited us face to face. I don’t know why.”
Serpas says that he met with the Tuders “to put a family with a face.” He says, “I just wanted to know who they were.”
To some more cynical observers, the chief’s press conference might have seemed to be more about him than Tabitha. After all, he could have met with the family privately rather than invite local news crews. But the chief says that he wants to keep Tabitha’s name and face in the press. In any case, part of his modus operandi clearly involves being a take-charge chief, a sharp departure from the laid-back, office-management approach that his predecessors took. Serpas, who wears his uniform every day to work, says that he wants people to see him and other command officers on the street. Being visible is an asset, he says. And many say that’s one reason why he got the job.
“This is pure guesswork on my part, but I think that this is what Mayor Purcell wanted in a new police chief,” says Metro Council member Mike Jameson, whose East Nashville district includes Tuders’ neighborhood.
Johnny White, a family friend of the Tuders, is glad the chief is taking a more hands-on approach than his predecessor. “I think Chief Faulkner just got too callused,” he says. “I had high hopes for her, but I kept waiting for her to come by and show us some effort was being done on the case.” He adds, “If we could go back eight months with this chief I don’t know what the outcome would be, but there would have been some major differences in how the investigation went. Especially early on.”
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