In an effort to get word out on the city's violence reduction initiative, Chattanooga Public Safety Coordinator Paul Smith has met with groups and individuals including:
• Urban League of Greater Chattanooga, East Chattanooga Development Inc., various clergy groups, among them New United, New Anointing Pure Holiness Church, Second Baptist and Greater Emmanuel.
• Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity (college and alumni chapters), The Unity Group, Chattanooga Lynx, A Better Tomorrow, Project Pull, Hope For The Inner City, LAUNCH Chattanooga and Jobs For Life.
• Independent Youth Services, United Way, NAACP, Goodwill, Chattanooga State Community College, Launching Kings, Jewish Community Center, Children's Aid Society and Tennessee Conference on Social Welfare.
• Tennessee Department of Human Services, Breaking The Cycle, Hamilton County Juvenile Court, Tennessee Department of Corrections, Hamilton County Coalition.
Source: City of Chattanooga
Months after the arrests of 32 black men sparked outrage from the black community, a member of the mayor's staff says the administration is working furiously to distance itself from the federal investigation and sell its own crime reduction plan.
"You would be surprised at how many people thought the 32 arrests were connected [to our initiative]," said Paul Smith, the city's public safety coordinator. "We have to keep the message going forth that that thing was three and a half years of investigation. What we are doing now is not that.
"This is about keeping young black men alive and out of prison."
Smith has met with about 37 groups or individuals in the past few weeks, including the Urban League, A Better Tomorrow, United Way, NAACP, Goodwill and the Tennessee Department of Correction. More than a dozen more meetings are on his schedule.
In November, Mayor Andy Berke had said that the arrests made after a federal wiretapping investigation into the local crack cocaine trade were an example of the future strategies for city crime fighting. Then-police Chief Bobby Dodd called the men arrested the "worst of the worst" criminals in Chattanooga and said the city would see more of these types of federal-state partnerships as the new initiative moved forward.
"Today is the next step," Berke said at the news conference that day.
But that message quickly backfired.
At a group meeting after the 32 arrests, James Mapp, president of the Chattanooga NAACP, called the roundup racist and said he was concerned that the city's violence reduction initiative would hurt young black men. There are just as many white drug dealers as black; why weren't they being rounded up? he asked. On Friday, he said he has yet to meet with Smith, but a meeting is scheduled. Smith said he has met with other members of the organization.
Many others expressed concern about the 32 arrests and the mayor's initiative at a Chattanooga Times Free Press forum in December. Some said incarceration was not the right way to stop violence in the city. Social support and jobs are needed. Others called the mayor's plan an insincere attempt to prop up local business with better crime numbers.
Many voiced the same concerns Thursday at a follow-up forum hosted by the Unity Group. How was the city going to address the hopelessness and joblessness of black youth in a handful of city neighborhoods? What about juvenile offenders who wouldn't qualify for the city program?
"I want to know the portion about intervention. You can lock up all the criminals you want ... they are only going to be replaced," one woman said Thursday night.
Smith says the Chattanooga Violence Reduction Initiative does address the social needs of offenders. Once the most violent people in the community are targeted by police, they will be approached with help. Groups will partner with the city to offer jobs, training, transportation, food and educational assistance. The offenders can take the help or choose to reoffend, which would then trigger the full force of law enforcement and possible federal charges.
The program that Chattanooga's initiative is modeled after has been successful in dozens of cities across the country. In High Point, N.C., the number of murders fell from 22 a year to two a year over more than a decade. And the approach has been extended to drug markets and domestic violence.
Still, although the program has produced statistical results in nearly every city where it has been implemented, neighborhood group leaders and some that have already met with Smith say they just aren't convinced it's right for Chattanooga.
"I'm still not impressed by the program," said Unity Group President Sherman Matthews, who recently talked to Smith about it. "What you are doing is putting on a Band-Aid. It may look good but you will run into the same problems."
Others also said they don't think the mayor's staff has done a good job of communicating the program. The mayor's statements at the news conference about the 32 arrested were confusing and misleading, said Cynthia Stanley Cash, president of the North Brainerd Neighborhood Association.
Cash said she believes Smith is a good salesman, but she thinks too many have been kept in the dark too long about plans.
"I think they rolled it out wrong," she said.
Plus, the mayor's staff may be meeting with the wrong people if he wants buy-in from black community members, said Tiffany Rankins, secretary of the Lincoln Park Neighborhood Association.
"I have asked the city who they consider to be black leaders and they say black people that own their own businesses and also church pastors," she said. "Me personally, I think they ask the ones that go along with policy."
But Smith says he is going to a variety of groups in the community and has garnered a lot of support, especially from social service providers.
James Moreland, board chairman of East Chattanooga Development Improvement Inc., said he thinks Smith did a good job of explaining the Chattanooga Violence Reduction Initiative to him. The city will focus on a small number of the most violent offenders, he said.
"We want to support whatever cause will help," Moreland said.
Regardless, only a handful of true believers is needed to launch the program, said Jim Summey, executive director of the High Point Community Against Violence, which works with police in North Carolina to offer social services to violent offenders who are targeted.
"You don't need everybody in Chattanooga to say this is great," Summey said. "You just need 10 people."
Those who decry the program as racist and insensitive are part of the problem and don't understand the program at all, he said.
"They can live in their own misery," he said. "You have to understand that the unwilling community who are always talking about a problem that is older than most of them will never be a source of the solution."
At the end of the day, the most important players are police officers. They are the ones who have to enact a culture and attitude change to make the Chattanooga Violence Reduction Initiative a success, Summey said.
Smith said he and the mayor met with the whole command staff at the Chattanooga Police Department last week and believe officers are excited.
One neighborhood leader said she hopes police will partner with watch groups, community leaders and others because each side needs the other.
"The neighborhoods don't trust the police. The police feel the residents aren't forthcoming and both are true," said Everlena Holmes, block leader coordinator of the Glenwood Neighborhood Association. "Somehow or another you have to break through. You have to develop trust."
The first meeting with offenders is set for March.
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