published Friday, March 22nd, 2013

Hundreds attend mayor-elect Berke's Highland Park forum (with video and slideshow)

Andy Berke holds forum on Chattanooga crime
More than 450 people attended a crime forum organized by Chattanooga mayor-elect Andy Berke on the campus on Tennessee Temple University on Thursday. After a panel discussion, attendees broke up into groups to discuss Chattanooga's crime problems and potential solutions. Berke said the information will be complied so he and his staff can put a policy in place by the time he takes office on April 15.

People crowded into a gymnasium Thursday night came hoping that things will change.

Maybe there will be less blood shed. Each day it seems like the bullets continue to fly.

On Thursday night, Mayor-elect Andy Berke hosted a public safety panel followed by small break-out sessions to hear from a couple hundred residents.

"We're using this information and incorporating it during this transition period to be ready to govern on Day 1," he said.

Since March 5, six days have passed when city has not had a shooting resulting in death or injury.

"I'm angry and disappointed by the events of the last two weeks," Berke said.

It's almost every other day people hear reports of a young black man getting gunned down. Many of the shootings are gang related.

Cassandra Robinson, a 23-year resident of College Hill Courts, left the forum feeling hopeful about Berke's efforts.

She's tired of the violence. Tired of men leaving their children and tired of programs coming and going.

Her daughter went to school with Lamunta Williams, the 16-year-old who was killed a block away from Howard School earlier this month. Williams was at her door just weeks ago.

But Robinson said she's desensitized by all the guns and killing.

"I'm so used to it now that it doesn't bother me," she said. "I just send up a prayer.

Berke asked people for a commitment to make changes.

"What are you ideas? What are your goals? How can you commit to making our city better?" he said.

Robinson isn't impressed with the current administration and feels that Berke seems to be more interested in making change.

  • photo
    Audience members listen to Andy Berke at his first public forum.
    Photo by Connor Choate.
    enlarge photo

"I feel like he's listening," she said. "He has a heart."

At roundtable discussions, residents from all parts of town talked about worsening crime in their neighborhoods and how property crime and violence is spreading from the urban core to areas like East Ridge, East Brainerd and North Chattanooga.

At East Lake Courts, elderly people are afraid to go outside.

In Orchard Knob, too many young men are hanging around on the streets.

And on the Westside, programs that made a difference like Weed and Seed have fallen by the wayside because of lost funding.

"One thing that I hear consistently is people understand the long term issues that we face. They know that we have to find ways for people to have that path to hope and opportunity," Berke said. "They want our violent criminals punished and punished severely, but they also know the other side has to be addressed as well."

Isaac Grimes, 79, who lives in Highland Park, isn't convinced anything will come from another forum or a new mayor in office.

"I don't think nothing of it. It's just the same old soup re-heated," he said. "They say, 'Take your neighborhood back.' I didn't do anything to lose it."

No one's going to give Berke a free ride.

"This is helpful," said Uriana Makoto, who lives in Orchard Knob, "only if we hold them accountable."

She said she'll rally neighbors to call Berke's office, to petition him in person and to rally the media until things get better.

In her mind, gang members should be treated like humans. She said she wants to see officials call together the Bloods and the Crips and ask them what they need to change.

"They need jobs, counseling, detox," she said. "The solution can not be to lock them all up."

Selbrea Rhodes harped on the need for jobs.

"Get them a job. A lot of them are trying to get jobs just to keep their momma's lights on," she said.

Sometimes that means selling drugs if youths are turned away, she said.

"I'm not saying it's right, but at the end of the day, you do what you have to do," she said.

about Kevin Hardy...

Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...

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