The drug- and alcohol-related arrest of the director of A Better Tomorrow, a nonprofit connected to Chattanooga's Violence Reduction Initiative, won't interfere with the program to cut violent crime, city leaders said Saturday.
Richard Kevin Bennett, 48, founder and director of the nonprofit, was discovered by Chattanooga police officers in East Lake Park late Friday night. Officers had been alerted to watch for a blue or silver minivan being driven erratically.
Bennett was in a minivan with a woman and his pants were unzipped, the police report stated. Police saw two open bottles of Budweiser and an open bottle of Patron tequila in plain view, and found a baggie with less than a gram of marijuana in the glove box and a container on his key chain containing one-and-a-half 7.5mg hydrocodone pills.
The woman told officers that she was meeting Bennett because he owed her money. Bennett said he was getting information for the VRI from her, the report stated.
Lacie Stone, spokeswoman for Mayor Andy Berke, said Bennett will no longer be associated with the mayor's high-profile plan to reduce violent crime.
Stone said in an email that the mayor's office would not "tolerate criminal activity" from anyone, whether associated with one of the city's initiatives or not.
"We are extremely disappointed in Mr. Bennett's actions and have halted his involvement with Chattanooga Violence Reduction Initiative," Stone said in the statement.
Reached by phone Saturday, Bennett declined to answer questions and said his attorney, Gerald Webb, would issue a statement.
"It's not what you're reading," Bennett said about the incident. "Have a blessed day."
Webb could not be reached and had not released a statement by Saturday night.
Bennett has been active in Mayor Andy Berke's Violence Reduction Initiative since it kicked off. A Better Tomorrow, founded by Bennett in 2001 and granted 501(c)(3) status in 2004, was the only nonprofit group to respond to the city's request for proposals in April to provide social services for those taking part in the initiative.
The plan involves calling in men involved in violent crimes and offering them a choice: stop the violence or go to jail for a long time. The carrot for participants is access to education, job training and other skills needed to abandon crime.
Bennett's organization has been central to the initiative and helped at least 10 people fill out paperwork to receive help with job services, mentors and life skills as needed. And Bennett has been a point person for the initiative, directing those in need to the proper resources.
However, although social services are part of the concept, the "bulk of the initiative" is being handled and implemented by Public Safety Coordinator Paul Smith and the Chattanooga Police Department, Stone said in her email.
She said the city will use existing partnerships with other agencies to meet the social service needs of the VRI.
Attempts to reach Smith were unsuccessful.
Since the first call-in of the VRI on March 21 -- where 13 of the city's gang members and serious felons faced police officers, prosecutors, community leaders and city officials, and were given the choice of giving up violence or going to jail -- four of the participants have found jobs.
However, on April 10, Aveus Bailey, 21, one of the original 13, was arrested on charges of carrying a dangerous weapon with intent to go armed and evading arrest. Police said they were searching a vehicle he was riding in and he ran away. When police asked why he ran, Bailey told officers that there was a gun under his seat in the vehicle.
Bailey, who has felony robbery convictions, now faces federal gun charges from that arrest.
Asked for comment on Bennett's arrest, District 4 City Councilman Larry Grohn said he wanted to see the arrest report before saying anything.
District 8 Councilman Moses Freeman, chairman of the public safety committee, said that if the allegations are true the arrest is "very disappointing" because of the "remarkable turnaround" Bennett had made in his own life and his "positive contribution" to the VRI and to the community.
Bennett was booked into the Hamilton County Jail on two charges of possession of a controlled substance and an open container violation. He made bond Saturday and is scheduled to appear before General Sessions Judge Christine Sell on July 1.
"It may not be in the VRI's interest to go forward with [Bennett] as a key component of it, and his organization," Freeman said. "And that's regrettable. But, the VRI is sort of, in my mind, being institutionalized, and an individual or program contractor who is a part of it will not have a major impact on it. I think there are others who could fulfill that role admirably as well."
Contact staff writer Alex Harris at email@example.com or 423-757-6592.