Gerber: Series seeks to speak the truth

Gerber: Series seeks to speak the truth

December 15th, 2013 by Alison Gerber in Opinion Columns

Alison Gerber

Photo by Staff File Photo/Times Free Press.

At first, I wasn't sure we should let two reporters spend day and night in the most violent pockets of the city.

But they convinced me there was a story there that we'd be remiss not to tell. The idea came from the courthouse. Witnesses were often missing. Behind the scenes, prosecutors and victims' families grumbled about the code of silence. This is just how it is, they'd say. Our reporters wanted to know why. And they wanted to know how pervasive this mentality is.

These questions led Joan Garrett McClane and Todd South into nine months of reporting.

The two pored over more than 300 shooting cases. They gathered statistics. They read trial transcripts and attended hearings. They shadowed police investigators, prosecutors and defense attorneys. They met with gang members.

Most painfully, they spent months with the mothers, brothers, sisters and friends of those killed.

In all they talked to more than 150 people -- the most powerful figures and the powerless.

From all this work came a project, "Speak No Evil," that should be read and reread. We think this information is so important that we dedicated eight full pages to it.

It's in today's newspaper, and we'll also deliver it free this week to the East and South Chattanooga neighborhoods most affected by gun violence.

On Thursday, the Times Free Press will host a forum allowing Chattanooga residents to discuss the divide between the police and residents of inner-city neighborhoods. The reporters found there's a huge level of distrust between inner-city residents and police officers. Residents simply don't trust the police. Meanwhile, police don't understand why many won't testify in criminal cases.

Our stories talk about the problem. They also look at the solution. McClane traveled to High Point, N.C., to see firsthand how the anti-crime initiative being implemented by Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke works elsewhere.

That program has succeeded in dramatically lowering the rate of violence.

A big part of that program, which High Point started in 1997, is rebuilding trust between the police department and communities with high rates of violence. In Chattanooga, there hasn't been much open public discussion about that part of the program, but our forum will allow that.

We expect the conversation to be honest and raw and perhaps uncomfortable. It may not look pretty, but it is necessary.

Shootings don't happen in most Chattanooga neighborhoods. And it's easy to look away, to say it's not my problem or it doesn't affect me.

But when lives are being senselessly lost, when people are suffering, it's a newspaper's responsibility to find out why.

There's a human cost to this problem, but there's also a huge societal price tag. Shootings and homicides are costing millions. Hospital charges. Jail costs. Police overtime. Court expenses. They all rack up.

So please engage in this story. Read the eight-page section. Go online at timesfreepress.com/speaknoevil for additional photo galleries by photographer Doug Strickland and multimedia by reporter Mary Helen Miller.

Come to the forum. Email us your feedback.

Whatever you do, don't be silent.

Alison Gerber is editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Contact her at agerber@timesfreepress.com.