Cook: Will the real gang policy please stand up?

Cook: Will the real gang policy please stand up?

September 13th, 2013 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse /Times Free Press.

Let's start with some good news.

"We have been engaged with David Kennedy's office to hire them," Mayor Andy Berke said over the phone on Thursday.

Kennedy, if you don't already know, is a godfather of anti-crime work in America. The author of two head-turning, effective strategies called Ceasefire and High Point Initiative -- remember those terms as they'll come up again -- Kennedy and colleagues have been planning with City Hall on bringing those strategies to Chattanooga.

Here are some Cliff Notes.

Cities identify the worst of the worst of their violent offenders.

"They are collectively going to represent under half a percent of the city's population and they are routinely connected with 60 to 70 to 75 percent of all homicides," Kennedy said.

Odds are, they're already on probation, a status officials leverage by requiring these grizzly offenders to attend a meeting that becomes part Jedi-mind trick, part last-tick-to-midnight intervention.

From one side of the room, the community speaks: social services, pastors, mothers of gunshot victims. Offenders listen as a way off the streets is offered. Education. Job training. Bus passes. A second chance.

Then comes the long arm of the law. FBI, police, district attorneys and others deliver another message: next time somebody from your gang shoots somebody else, we're dropping the hammer. On everybody.

We'll arrest you for littering. Toss cells of gang members in prison. Check the rabies tags on your pit bulls. Condemn your houses. Anything to make all your lives miserable for that one shooting.

So, Mr. Gang Banger, you've now got a choice. Get your whole crew right, or get ready for prison.

If done correctly, it works. Really, really well.

"My goal is to have everything up and running by the new year," the mayor said.

Which brings us to the not-so-good news.

One year ago this week, the Gang Assessment was released. Remember that? 173 pages, at the cost of $70,000, widely considered one of the most comprehensive studies of its kind.

The study was done at the request of the Gang Task Force which, before it was dissolved by Berke in his early days in office, had already been doing Ceasefire and High Point-esque work.

Local, state and federal agencies saturated certain gangs, like the January 2012 operation that targeted local Crips and resulted in 33 probation checks, eight arrests, six served warrants, two residences condemned and one dog seized.

(The partridge in a pear tree got a warning.)

Probation offices arranged meetings where offenders on probation were called in, offered help while also being warned about what will happen if the violence continues.

A public safety committee -- formed by city and county leaders, responsible for the Gang Task Force -- continued to meet. When he was elected, Berke rearranged this committee into a public safety coordinated council. It has since met twice.

"I attended the first meeting. The whole thing was over in 30 or 40 minutes," said Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond. "The second meeting was mainly discussing one individual. The whole meeting was not about what's our plan, or what are we going to do. It was mainly about one person. It is my understanding that Chief [Bobby] Dodd is working on a plan out of High Point, N.C. Elements of it were not discussed."

Are you starting to see the problem? Starting to see how new ideas and old ideas merge together, over and over, ebbing and flowing like waves on the shore?

One more, most important example.

Earlier this summer, Dr. Barbara Medley and Marcy Porter of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's Center for Applied Social Research finished their monumental work trying to turn the Gang Study data and community ideas into reality.

It's called the Implementation Plan: 40 pages of specific and realistic anti-violence plans combined with measurable benchmark and goals on how to achieve them.

It would become Medley's final opus; she died in July.

"I don't have the implementation plan," Berke said.

Does anyone in his administration have the plan? Public Safety Coordinator Paul Smith could not be reached for comment.


Maybe the Gang Task Force was broken in ways I don't know; maybe the work of old really does need to be replaced.

But I can't help thinking: We've been here before.

How much do we have to erase from the past in order to create plans for today? Why is the Implementation Plan doomed to be forgotten and the work of the Task Force so casually tossed overboard?

What's the shelf life on Berke's plans? What happens to those when the next mayor is elected?

All the while, poor people continue to get shot and shoot back.

Berke swears things will be different this time. A true High Point could do it. Even Kennedy -- a man not known for tiptoeing around stuff -- was clear.

"I don't have any reservations whatsoever that Chattanooga is really moving on this and is going to make it happen," he said.

The magnificent news comes when nobody has to say that anymore.

Contact David Cook at or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.