Inside Chattanooga's 1st violence reduction call-in, atmosphere was casual but the message pointed

Inside Chattanooga's 1st violence reduction call-in, atmosphere was casual but the message pointed

March 22nd, 2014 by Joy Lukachick Smith, Beth Burger and Joan Garrett McClane in Local Regional News

David Kennedy, left, is followed by Chattanooga police Lt. Todd Royval, Capt. Edwin McPherson and Paul Smith as they walk with Mayor Andy Berke, foreground, to a news conference inside City Hall in this file photo.

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

It was hard to read the reactions of the 13 gang members and felons who walked out of Chattanooga's first Violence Reduction Initiative call-in Thursday night.

One man walked somberly to his car and said he didn't want to talk about what happened inside the annex of Olivet Baptist Church.

Others came out in clusters, laughing, still chewing on the Papa John's pizza that was ordered for the unprecedented meeting among law enforcement officers, community members and those who have contributed to crime in the city.

"They said stop the violence and ----," said one man who didn't want to give his name.

Still, others seemed moved.

Aveus Bailey, a 21-year-old with teardrops tattooed under his eyes, said he went to the meeting even though he had been on the run from police.

His arrest record is long and includes charges of robbery, aggravated assault, unlawful carrying or possessing a weapon, inciting to riot, aggravated robbery, theft of property, reckless endangerment, reckless driving, evading arrest and tampering with or fabricating evidence.

Still, he said he liked what he heard. Those inside promised to help him find work if he stopped using violence to settle disputes and stealing. He had a phone number in his pocket, a card from a man who promised to help him.

"I want to be an engineer," Bailey said.

He was told to talk to his fellow gang members and tell them to stop shooting each other. He said he plans to do what he was told.

Twenty-one-year-old LaWarren Smith Jr., whose arrest record includes charges of possession of a firearm in a public place and evading arrest, said he was nervous before the meeting. He expected to be carried off in handcuffs, but he wasn't.

He's been shot five times, he said, and he wants to see the city change.

"I love this city, and we need to stop the violence," he said.

"I'm a lover, not a fighter," his friend Bailey yelled out after him.

Inside the more-than-two-hour meeting, the reaction from gang members started off as police expected, with many worrying they were in trouble.

Efforts were made to put them at ease.

One man walked inside as he was on the phone with his wife. Capt. Edwin McPherson overheard him tell her not to wait for him but to leave because he was going to be arrested.

McPherson walked up to the man: "Tell her to wait," McPherson said. "You're going to leave here in an hour."

When the probationers walked into the conference room, the crowd of dozens of community members, outreach workers and organizers stood. The offenders sat. The audience sat behind them in a semicircle.

The mayor set the tone.

"I'm Andy Berke and I'm the mayor of Chattanooga and I love the entire city," he said to the men. "I am here because I care about you. ... This is why I ran for mayor."

The leaders took turns speaking. Police. Prosecutors. Outreach workers. Underscoring the message over and over again. There's help here for you. But the violence must cease. The cost to you is too high. The cost to the community is too high.

Brenda Johnson said her daughter spoke. She told the men how her son, Michael Johnson, was shot in the head and killed nearly three years ago.

"I don't want another parent to go through what I had to go through," she told the 13 men. When she was finished speaking, she shook hands with them, one by one.

Everyone listened respectfully, Brenda Johnson said.

"It was nice."

David Kennedy, a nationally renowned criminologist from John Jay School of Criminal Justice in New York, who created the violence reduction model now being used in Chattanooga, said he's never seen a call-in go better.

The men, who are part of the 49 groups the police have identified as causing Chattanooga's violence, seemed receptive, open.

They were told that they needed to stop the violence or face the consequences -- arrest or death. Still, their body language said they were willing to listen, Kennedy told the Times Free Press after the meeting.

Kennedy has helped hold meetings like this all over the country, and he said it's normal to sense hostility from the felons. They might cross their arms or bolt for the door when the meeting ends.

But these men leaned forward in their chairs, they stayed after they were free to go. They got phone numbers, shook hands and ate pizza with some of the same officers who have arrested them.

"They clearly knew they were being treated with respect," Kennedy said.

Yet only half of the men who were told to attend the meeting showed up.

Thirteen of 25 came. Of the other 12 men, about half of them had been jailed and the other half just didn't come, said Lt. Todd Royval. There will be consequences for the men who chose not to come.

But for all the talk about help, some of the men left feeling as if the burden of the city's violence had been heaped on them.

Outside in the church parking lot Thursday night, Amanda Gilbert sat with her car running. She was nervous and said she didn't understand why her boyfriend was inside with police. He had been released from prison a year ago, has a full-time job in Ringgold, Ga., and was going to school. He was turning his life around, she said. But his probation officer said he had to be here.

She asked if she could go inside. No, she was told. Then she saw Paul Green, executive director of Hope for the Inner City, a local Christian organization, whom she has known most of her life.

"Why now?" she asked. "He's been doing good on his own for so long."

"Just pray," she said he told her.

When her boyfriend walked out, Gilbert said he was afraid and even more confused. He told her the group had been singled out and would be held responsible for gang violence in the city.

"If anything goes down, [the police] are going to be coming after us," Gilbert said.

Contact staff writer Joan Garrett McClane at or 423-757-6601.

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at or 423-757-6659.

Contact staff writer Beth Burger at or 423-757-6406.