published Tuesday, June 10th, 2014

Cook: Trust and 10 digits

Not Richard Bennett.

Anybody but Richard Bennett.

For the last few months, his phone number -- 423-485-1012 -- has been the most important phone number in Chattanooga. Hundreds of young black men from across the city have been dialing it, asking for help. A job. Tattoo removal. A mentor. Something. Anything but this.

Mayor Andy Berke staked everything on Bennett and those 10 digits. Everything. As the city began its Violence Reduction Initiative, they handed out business cards with Bennett's number printed on them.

"Ready for a change?" the cards say. "485-1012."

Bennett and his nonprofit A Better Tomorrow were the helping hands, the buoy to so many drowning men, who called and called Bennett's phone.

"More than 400 calls," one city official said recently.

I wonder if Bennett's phone was ringing on Saturday night, as police took him to jail after finding him parked in his minivan, surrounded by his own potential demise.

"Small bag of weed, two hydro pills, open containers," the police report reads.

With the arrest of Bennett, the city's Violence Reduction Initiative should be immediately suspended. Without Bennett, the city's anti-violence work is a fraction of its former self, for the entire program was based on two key pieces: strong law enforcement (the Chattanooga police) and a way off the street corner (Bennett, who spent Saturday night in jail.)

"We are extremely disappointed in Mr. Bennett's actions and have halted his involvement with Chattanooga Violence Reduction Initiative," said Lacie Stone, spokeswoman for Berke.

Officials handed out that number in the most delicate and dicey of places: the doorways of gang bangers. At the hospital bed of gunshot victims. To the girlfriends and grandmothers of those calling the shots.

For many, it was the first time police had knocked on those doors with something other than a search warrant, or news that someone had died.

Call this number, they'd say. And we'll give you the best help we can.

Really, what they were saying was this: trust us.

Now, the man behind the number has been arrested, and his work with the city finished. If anyone calls that number, they will be directed to Paul Smith, the city's public safety coordinator, who spent Monday trying to undo the damage of Saturday night.

"Reaching out to all those who have called the number to provide them with these details and answer any questions they might have," Stone said.

If Bennett's number has been distributed throughout the city -- if 400 have called, then I'm guessing another 400 also have it -- how will Smith ever get the word out?

And imagine the conversation when he does. The folks he's calling are already suspicious of the system -- police, government, media -- and may have only just begun the first steps of building some hesitant and shaky relationship.

Now, Smith's got to say that the one man the city trusted to coordinate rehabilitation efforts is facing charges himself.

Can a program like this recover from something like that?

It seems naive and problematic that the city staked everything on this one man. No other program or initiative is so dependent on one person, especially a program so swaddled in vulnerability as this one.

Who's going to mentor the men Bennett was mentoring? Or encourage the ones he helped to find work?

What happens to all those kids at Washington Alternative Learning Center, where Bennett taught courses in life skills?

The Washington kids loved him. I saw it with my own eyes. Bennett spoke to them with power and truth, telling them to call him day or night, for help. Worked to get them jobs. A sober life. A second chance.

I believe Bennett did great good in some really dark places. More good than I will ever know. And if the philosophy of VRI is about second chances and redemption, then I must also say this: this does not have to be the end of Richard Bennett. One day, he can return to doing good.

But what happens between then and now?

I called his number yesterday to ask him.

It went to voicemail.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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aae1049 said...

David,

The city of Chattanooga has a history of contracting with frauds. They contracted with a Federal prison money launderer for the mesh network that still doesn't work, and now has made promises to people teetering on prison and high risk lives prior to even minimal vetting of a Better Tomorrow.

A local watch reviewed the 990's for a Better Tomorrow, and it was clear that the organization had pervasive conflicts of interest, and financial problems. You cannot render help to people without resources and a Better Tomorrow mostly existed to pay themselves, family member and friends salaries. Advice is cheap, tangible resources can the difference for people.

The city of Chattanooga should have vetted the organization, prior to making empty promises to high risk individuals.

June 10, 2014 at 10:05 a.m.
Ki said...

The mayor is only guilty of being naive, trusting and listening to other crooks looking get their hands in the cookie jar. I met Bennett many many years ago when looking for someone, some organization to reach out to a few of the young men from the community I lived. To be honest he scared the hell out of me. I could very well see him abusing his position to control and manipulate the very people he was assigned to help. That's why I decided to go solo and do what I could on my own. These type programs use to be handled through the schools and with real professionals. I don't see why that can't be the way to go now. The biggest mistake is making these programs all conditional faith based. Some people will claim to be anything for the right price. They learned to play a certain role a long time ago.

June 10, 2014 at 11:03 a.m.
sagoyewatha said...

Still waiting for the predictable and inevitable SPIN to drop, in which the police and all white people are blamed for the criminal behavior of this loser. It is first of all, about behavior, not race. While it seems true to believe that there is nothing permanent but change, it would be wise to keep in mind that individuals do not change much, and that past behavior predicts future behavior. The city needs to hire and PAY professionals with a consistent real life record of actually helping people and NO criminal record. Think of the millions of dollars we pay to coaches in this state to PLAY GAMES. When it comes to life and death work, the only money available is for a lifetime criminal to do MYSTERIOUS WORK with other losers. It just will not work, so nip it in the bud.

June 10, 2014 at 11:19 a.m.
Ki said...

The central point of success in the AA communist has always had more ties to the schools and the relationship the schools had with the community more so then with the church or religious ties. Many of the churches within thee AA community rarely to never interact with the people in the community where the chuches are located. In fact most, sometimes all, the congregation live outside and far away from the community where these churches are located. The biggest mistake was tying everything to faith bases. Suddenly everyone became and claimed 'faith.'

June 10, 2014 at 5:03 p.m.
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