published Sunday, March 16th, 2014

Chattanooga set to tell gangs: Put down the guns or take your chances in prison

Lt. Todd Royval of the Chattanooga Police Department discusses updates on the Chattanooga Violence Reduction Initiative during a Dec. 11, 2013, meeting at City Hall in Chattanooga.
Lt. Todd Royval of the Chattanooga Police Department discusses updates on the Chattanooga Violence Reduction Initiative during a Dec. 11, 2013, meeting at City Hall in Chattanooga.
Photo by Maura Friedman /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

With ventilator tubes hissing and pushing oxygen into her lungs, Keoshia Ford flutters her eyelids. She occasionally grunts. Her foot wiggles, a tiny victory in a still life.

Her bedroom, decorated with Hello Kitty stickers, resembles a young girl's room. But 15-year-old Keoshia, or as her mother calls her, KeKe, is growing into a woman while lying in a hospital bed.

Monday will mark the two-year anniversary since KeKe, an innocent bystander, was shot in the head in an eruption of gang violence.

Later this month, Chattanooga's Violence Reduction Initiative will roll out after months of preparation.

The goal is to stem the street violence and stop the deaths of so many young black men, who are six times more likely than whites to be victims of homicide. City and police leaders are hoping far fewer people like KeKe Ford will suffer from gun violence.

A team from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, working under the leadership of criminologist David Kennedy, started the process by scouring Chattanooga's violent crime data over several years.

What they discovered was a pattern -- many of the same people were connected to shootings.

"The same names keep popping up almost all the time for the shootings and the murders. Those are the people that we're going to go after," Chattanooga Police Lt. Todd Royval said.

Twenty-five people, all on probation, will be invited to the first "call-in" meeting. Some may have helped commit shootings. Some may know gunmen. Some actually pulled the trigger, police believe.

"Yeah, we might know they committed a murder, but we can't put them in jail for it yet because we don't have the evidence or probable cause to arrest that person," Royval said.

Those 25 will meet with a mother of a shooting victim, prosecutors, police and members of outreach groups. Others involved in violence who aren't on probation may be contacted at their homes later, Royval said.

They will be told that the shootings must stop. They will be offered help if they want to change their lives.

"We tend to act like there are just two choices. One, they just keep running and gunning, and the other is they turn their lives around," Kennedy said in a phone interview Saturday. "There's a huge middle ground. ... Many of them will continue as much as they have been, but they will not be violent."

Those who spurn the offer will find themselves targets. Police will be on the watch for any chance to see they get long federal prison terms.

To some in the community, that opportunity to change may seem unfair. Many people in the city need help. They haven't shot or robbed anyone or brandished a gun. Why offer help and support to someone suspected of deadly violence?

"Because if we don't, these guys can show up anywhere at anytime doing the wrong things," said Paul Smith, the city's public safety coordinator. "I believe we have a moral imperative to help."

Kennedy said offering the help is critical.

"Does this very, very small ... population somehow deserve this help more than anyone else? The answer is no, they don't. The reason we do it is because it's part of solving the problem, and the problem is so severe that it is worth it in terms of absolute pragmatism doing what it takes to fix it," he said.

Gerald Webb, a defense attorney in Chattanooga, grew up on the east side of the city where shootings often occur. It wasn't that way when he was a child. Most children had fathers. Most fathers had jobs, he said.

"There are a lot of guys out there who are not as deeply involved in criminal activity who could use some resources," he said. "Nobody will give them a chance. They learned their lesson, but the ghost from their past continues to haunt them."

The Violence Reduction Initiative eventually will reach others on the street with aid, officials said. Many will learn what's available through word of mouth.

LeKeshia Matthews, KeKe's mother, said Saturday something has to be done to stop the cycle of violence.

The teenager who was charged with shooting her daughter was sentenced to two years.

He will be getting out soon, she said. She doesn't know that she will ever be able to forgive him or others who were involved.

"I just can't. It's something that's going to be with me for the rest of my life," she said, standing at the foot of her daughter's bed. Porcelain and glass angels bow in prayer on KeKe's windowsill. A large framed print of the Madonna and child hangs near her bed.

"It's the grace of God KeKe's here," Matthews said. We pray for her to walk again."

KeKe is unable to care for herself. She wears a diaper. She cannot feed herself. She still requires around-the-clock care.

Matthews wonders what KeKe's shooter will do when he gets out.

"I think he probably learned his lesson, but you never know," she said. "You're going to be in the game or you're going to do right."

Matthews has hope, though. And maybe the initiative will work.

"Everybody's not perfect. It's OK if you get a second chance. But if you keep on, keep on and keep on -- then no," she said.

Royval argues the police want to build cases against those who commit violent crimes. But when there's a culture of not cooperating with police, the initiative seems to be the best option.

"It wasn't our fault [they] got away with it," he said.

It can be argued that the traditional tough stance against crime has not worked. People continue to be shot and killed. Shootings with injuries increased last year in Chattanooga.

If a shooting is committed and there's enough evidence, people in the call-in will go to jail. It doesn't matter if they accepted getting help, officials said. Police plan to crack down on anyone who steps out of line.

"I think they are going to test us to make sure we keep our promise," Royval said.

And that may happen. Kennedy says it's likely most people who are offered assistance won't accept it.

"If history is any guide, most of them will not end up taking the help they are offered and going back to school and getting jobs. What most of them will do is they will stop acting violently," he said.

If they commit nonviolent crimes, they will be arrested for the offenses, but they can continue getting help.

Webb isn't sure much will change.

"When you force people to change, is it really a change?" he said.

Offering help will take away excuses, Kennedy said.

"So they no longer get to say what they say to each other which is, 'Everybody hates us and we never had a chance,'" Kennedy said. "And it also helps their own community say to them, 'They are trying to help you. I don't want to hear excuses anymore. You can't act like this anymore.'"

In the meantime, families like KeKe's wait. They pray for miracles inside their home and outside on the streets.

"I'm not going to give up," Matthews said.

Contact staff writer Beth Burger at bburger@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6406. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/abburger.

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