Mayor's goal for Chattanooga: Safest midsize city in South

Mayor's goal for Chattanooga: Safest midsize city in South

March 24th, 2013 by Cliff Hightower and Kevin Hardy in Local Regional News

Mayor-elect Andy Berke addresses the audience at his first public forum at McGilvray Gymnasium on the campus of Tennessee Temple University.

Photo by Connor Choate /Times Free Press.

Unlike the vague speeches and interviews that defined his campaign, Mayor-elect Andy Berke now is drilling down to specifics.

On Thursday he outlined a measurable goal: to make Chattanooga the safest midsize city in the South. In four years.

"Too many people in our great city live in fear," Berke said to a crowd of hundreds who gathered at a public safety forum at Tennessee Temple in Highland Park.

Comparing Chattanooga with 50 other midsize cities in the region, Berke cited figures that show the Scenic City has the 10th-highest violent crime rate and the 11th-highest property crime rate.

Not even three months into 2013, city police have recorded 25 shootings and eight homicides. Wednesday night, officers found a 22-year-old lying dead in an East Chattanooga alley. Earlier this month, a 16-year-old boy was shot and killed in an abandoned house just a block from his school.

To reduce the crime rate, Berke said he'll improve policing, prevention, prosecution and punishment of crime. But some of those pieces like prosecution and punishment of crime are largely out of the control of mayors.

Mayor Ron Littlefield has played a part in shaping state crime policy, seeking to strengthen the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, to include longer sentences for gang members. Another Littlefield-backed bill is making its way through Nashville now. That law seeks beefed-up penalties for crimes committed by gangbangers within 1,000 feet of a school or recreation center.

"I would argue we've been working on a lot of legislation on that," said state Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson. "That's nothing new."

In a statement Friday, Berke said his administration will work "in harmony" with county and state government to take the most violent offenders off the street.

"That means cooperating with prosecutors to target criminal activity that will bring the longest sentences for serial offenders," he wrote.

The city's Gang Task Force launched in 2012 after a comprehensive study examined the depths of criminal gangs across the city. Task force initiatives coming on board already touch on prevention, prosecution and policing, as organizers work with police, prosecutors, ex-offenders, young children and families.

At Thursday's forum, Berke held a panel discussion in which he alone posed questions. Experts on the panel didn't include Gang Task Force Coordinator Boyd Patterson, Chattanooga Police Chief Bobby Dodd or Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond.

While panelists spoke about broad issues like domestic violence, drug and alcohol addiction and youth programs, participants who later sat at tables seemed to focus largely on violent crime, deterioriating neighborhoods and criminal street gangs. In the roundtable discussions, Berke's volunteers collected thoughts on giant note pads.

Berke has hinted that he may move away from the current Gang Task Force approach and said his administration would cast a wider net for curbing crime. Thus, domestic violence, addiction and property crime were all discussed at the event.

"I'm encouraged that he's broadening the topic of crime beyond just one narrow area," said Helen Eigenberg, professor and criminal justice department chairwoman at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

Eigenberg, whose research focuses on domestic violence, was a panelist at the event. She said crime rates are volatile and should be viewed in a long-term context. But if Berke is successful in pushing Chattanooga's crime rate to the lowest of 50 comparable cities within just four years, that would be big.

"That would be pretty conclusive," she said. "A big change like that over a relative short amount of time is kind of hard to minimize."