Ex-principal from Howard takes on public safety role in Chattanooga

Ex-principal from Howard takes on public safety role in Chattanooga

June 9th, 2013 by Beth Burger in Local Regional News

Mayor Andy Berke and newly appointed Public Safety Coordinator Paul Smith speak about the new position during an interview at Hope For The Inner City in East Chattanooga on Friday. Berke chose Smith, the former Howard School principal, to lead the city's public safety initiative.

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

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The public safety coordinator's responsibilities will include:

• Coordination of efforts focused on providing opportunities for at-risk youth.

• Growing community partnerships with agencies to move toward common outcomes.

• Improving data collection efforts internal to city government and providing support to community agencies to allow for coordinated data collection.

• Monitoring progress of implementing policies within the mayor's public safety plan including the High Point Initiative.

• Providing regular updates to the mayor and key staff on the implementation of the comprehensive crime strategy.

Source: Lacie Stone, Mayor Andy Berke's spokeswoman

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke found a public safety coordinator in an unusual place.

It wasn't within the justice system or the law enforcement community.

Instead, Berke looked at an academically struggling school in the city's Southside that has shown improvement in recent years and plucked former Howard School Principal Paul Smith.

Smith, who was scheduled to move to a middle-school principal job, accepted the position Thursday and will begin researching and rolling out initiatives as part of the Berke administration's plan to improve safety.

"Paul has experience in working throughout our community. As principal at Howard, he was instrumental in bringing the community into his school, working with the administration to ensure that Howard got the proper resources, coordinating with the state when Howard went to the Achievement School District and making sure that the staff functioned at a high level," said Berke in an interview Friday afternoon. "Those skills translate well to the complex web of challenges that you face when trying to change our crime situation in Chattanooga."

Smith will coordinate efforts to provide opportunities for at-risk youth, partner with agencies, improve data collection throughout city government, monitor the progress of initiatives and update Berke's staff.

Many of those tasks mirror the goals that former Mayor Ron Littlefield's gang task force strove to meet for the year it was in place.

"First of all, I don't think about it in terms of how is it different from the gang task force. I think about it in terms of what I want to do," Berke said of his public safety initiative. "The public safety coordinator position is designed to help us move initiatives that will make our streets safer. That's not solely about gangs. That's about stopping violence in Chattanooga. Certainly a part of that is improving on the way that we treat gang violence, making us more effective. I would expect there to be similarities or there would be a problem. The gang task force had that as part of their charge as well."

Smith, who will not have a staff, will start June 28. He will be paid $82,000 a year -- nearly $13,000 less than his salary as Howard School principal.

Asked why he accepted the position, Smith said: "No. 1, I believe in Andy Berke. When I looked at and listened to his talk about ... the things that we can do in this city. I knew I wanted to be a part of it."

Smith said he plans to take a data-driven approach to tackling safety issues.

"First thing we want to do is look at data. Aggregate that data, and let the data tell us the story," Smith said. "Based on what that data says, we'll implement those initiatives."

Chattanooga Police Chief Bobby Dodd said Smith's school experience gives him credibility and respect as a coordinator.

"I think his experience working in the school system, working with kids will give him the tools he needs to make this program successful," Dodd said.

So far this year there have been 53 shootings in Chattanooga with 60 victims killed or injured. Of those, 17 were 19 or younger. At the same time last year, there had been 41 shootings with 46 victims.

"I will say on a personal level that the shootings bother me greatly," Berke said. "To me, the impact on the community from every shooting is tremendous. People don't feel safe in their homes. They don't like to walk the streets. It makes for an unhealthy neighborhood."

Smith has had students fall victim to gun violence.

In February, 16-year-old Lamunta Williams was gunned down in an abandoned home blocks from the high school. In 2011, 17-year-old Domnick Sherrell was shot to death in East Chattanooga.

The deaths weigh on him.

"I was at the hospital when they pronounced [Sherrell] dead," Smith said.

Berke was tightlipped when asked for more details of his overall public safety plan. So far, he's announced plans for an anti-drug program, the High Point Initiative, that will target drug dealers, and a Ceasefire program targeting violent gang members. He's also said he wants to create crime score cards for neighborhoods based on crime data and conduct a management study of the police department.

"We are careful to make sure that when we roll out our particular initiative or plan that we have thoroughly investigated what there needs to be," Berke said.

"Over the course of the next several months you'll see that we will continue to discuss and show the public some of the initiatives and strategies that right now are in the pipeline," Berke said.

"We want to make sure when we talk about a strategy that we know what it is that we want to do and that we're focused and directed in our strategy. I don't like talking about things in theory. I like saying, 'Here's what we're going to do.'"

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