Cook: Trust and 10 digits

Cook: Trust and 10 digits

June 10th, 2014 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse /Times Free Press.

Not Richard Bennett.

Anybody but Richard Bennett.

For the last few months, his phone number -- 423-485-1012 -- has been the most important phone number in Chattanooga. Hundreds of young black men from across the city have been dialing it, asking for help. A job. Tattoo removal. A mentor. Something. Anything but this.

Mayor Andy Berke staked everything on Bennett and those 10 digits. Everything. As the city began its Violence Reduction Initiative, they handed out business cards with Bennett's number printed on them.

"Ready for a change?" the cards say. "485-1012."

Bennett and his nonprofit A Better Tomorrow were the helping hands, the buoy to so many drowning men, who called and called Bennett's phone.

"More than 400 calls," one city official said recently.

I wonder if Bennett's phone was ringing on Saturday night, as police took him to jail after finding him parked in his minivan, surrounded by his own potential demise.

"Small bag of weed, two hydro pills, open containers," the police report reads.

With the arrest of Bennett, the city's Violence Reduction Initiative should be immediately suspended. Without Bennett, the city's anti-violence work is a fraction of its former self, for the entire program was based on two key pieces: strong law enforcement (the Chattanooga police) and a way off the street corner (Bennett, who spent Saturday night in jail.)

"We are extremely disappointed in Mr. Bennett's actions and have halted his involvement with Chattanooga Violence Reduction Initiative," said Lacie Stone, spokeswoman for Berke.

Officials handed out that number in the most delicate and dicey of places: the doorways of gang bangers. At the hospital bed of gunshot victims. To the girlfriends and grandmothers of those calling the shots.

For many, it was the first time police had knocked on those doors with something other than a search warrant, or news that someone had died.

Call this number, they'd say. And we'll give you the best help we can.

Really, what they were saying was this: trust us.

Now, the man behind the number has been arrested, and his work with the city finished. If anyone calls that number, they will be directed to Paul Smith, the city's public safety coordinator, who spent Monday trying to undo the damage of Saturday night.

"Reaching out to all those who have called the number to provide them with these details and answer any questions they might have," Stone said.

If Bennett's number has been distributed throughout the city -- if 400 have called, then I'm guessing another 400 also have it -- how will Smith ever get the word out?

And imagine the conversation when he does. The folks he's calling are already suspicious of the system -- police, government, media -- and may have only just begun the first steps of building some hesitant and shaky relationship.

Now, Smith's got to say that the one man the city trusted to coordinate rehabilitation efforts is facing charges himself.

Can a program like this recover from something like that?

It seems naive and problematic that the city staked everything on this one man. No other program or initiative is so dependent on one person, especially a program so swaddled in vulnerability as this one.

Who's going to mentor the men Bennett was mentoring? Or encourage the ones he helped to find work?

What happens to all those kids at Washington Alternative Learning Center, where Bennett taught courses in life skills?

The Washington kids loved him. I saw it with my own eyes. Bennett spoke to them with power and truth, telling them to call him day or night, for help. Worked to get them jobs. A sober life. A second chance.

I believe Bennett did great good in some really dark places. More good than I will ever know. And if the philosophy of VRI is about second chances and redemption, then I must also say this: this does not have to be the end of Richard Bennett. One day, he can return to doing good.

But what happens between then and now?

I called his number yesterday to ask him.

It went to voicemail.

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