Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke says shootings top goal for safety panel

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke says shootings top goal for safety panel

July 10th, 2013 by Beth Burger in Local Regional News

Mayor Andy Berke and newly appointed Public Safety Coordinator Paul David Smith speak about the new position while at Hope For The Inner City in East Chattanooga on June 7.

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke on Tuesday spelled out a top priority of his Public Safety Committee and the police department.

"Ultimately, my focus is on stopping the shootings," the mayor told committee members during their first meeting. "Every shooting affects the community. They make people feel less safe in their neighborhoods."

Year to date, the city has had at least 70 shooting incidents with 85 victims. This time last year, there had been 49 shooting incidents with 57 victims, records show.

Chattanooga Police Chief Bobby Dodd

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

Listening to Berke were familiar faces around the table. The Hamilton County district attorney general. The U.S. attorney. The police chief and the sheriff. And the big problem confronting this group also was familiar. Gun and gang violence.

Berke, who disbanded the Gang Task Force that had a similar mission, has broadened the scope of the Public Safety Committee to include other issues such as domestic violence.

On Tuesday, however, he talked about two programs -- Ceasefire and the High Point Initiative -- he plans to implement to target the city's worst criminal offenders in hopes of reducing gang violence, shootings and drug deals.

"I think there's an extraordinary opportunity with Ceasefire to try something different and succeed," Berke said. "If it doesn't, we'll try something after that."

Berke said work continues on developing a crime score card, conducting a management study at the police department and applying for grants.

Chattanooga Police Chief Bobby Dodd said he's hopeful Berke's approach will work.

"We did this to some degree under the last administration. I think we lost some focus there," he said.

"These gang members -- those who do want out ... they have nowhere to go," Dodd said. "No education. No jobs. And most of that, is their own fault. But we can't keep saying, 'It's your fault. It's your fault. It's your fault.' At some point, we have to look at it and say, 'What can we do differently?'"

Committee members also briefed Berke about programs already in place or in the works.

Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond speaks to Times Free Press editorial board members.

Photo by Patrick Smith/Times Free Press.

Sheriff Jim Hammond highlighted the importance of school resource officers and reaching students earlier in hopes of preventing crime.

Bill Killian, U.S. attorney for the 41-county Eastern District of Tennessee, said he hopes a special prosecutor might be able to work out of the police department to take more cases involving guns and gang members to federal court. A similar position was created several years ago in Johnson City, Tenn., he said. Officials are in discussion about whether a similar position may work here.

"It's helped bring down some very major criminal activity," Killian said. "We need to pursue every possible angle we can in that regard."

It remains unclear where money for that position would come from.

Prosecutors will continue to meet with convicted felons who are on probation to alert them to what federal sentences carry in hopes of deterring them from committing more crimes, he said.

The programs that Berke hopes to implement have a similar approach.

"We inform them that if they have a serious felony -- anything from burglary and up or a drug felony of any kind -- that their second time, they are looking at some very high minimums -- 10 years, 15 years and 20," Killian said.

Hamilton County Assistant District Attorney Cameron Williams soon will be designated to work with federal prosecutors.

"We can move those cases to federal court if necessary," Hamilton County District Attorney General Bill Cox said. "We do that now, but this will be a much smoother transition because the prosecutor will be informed and aware of circumstances of state court initially."

Public Safety Coordinator Paul Smith, the former principal at The Howard School, said most youths are approached by violent offenders -- sometimes gang members -- at the age of 8 or 9. Oftentimes, they become part of the group for protection, he said.

Smith will follow up with members of the committee for feedback and potentially broaden the circle at the table, Berke said.

The committee will meet at least once a quarter, the mayor said.

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