Violence reduction initiative ollout offers hope

Violence reduction initiative ollout offers hope

March 22nd, 2014 in Opinion Free Press

Throw away what you think you know about most shootings and homicides in Chattanooga, especially those involving young black men.

They're not about jobs. They're not about drugs. They're not about money. They're not about equality.

They are, instead, about a "super-heated honor culture," according to David Kennedy, a criminologist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and the co-creator of the crime program Chattanooga is implementing as part of Mayor Andy Berke's public safety initiative.

They're more about one person "disrespecting" another, or about someone carrying a gun because he perceives the next person he sees might try to kill him, or the "friction of a boy-girl relationship," Kennedy said at a meeting with Times Free Press editorial writers at City Hall Friday.

"What we think is going on is not going on," he said.

But it's what we do next that's most important.

On Thursday, more than 100 Chattanoogans, including 13 of the "most active offenders in this city" (out of 25 invited), attended the first in a series of call-ins -- meetings, really -- as part of the rollout of what is now called the Violence Reduction Initiative.

They're part of an operational strategy similar to ones Kennedy has helped put in place in other cities where he said the homicide rate was subsequently cut by "50 or 60 percent in short order."

The call-in itself "doesn't fix anything," he said, but it reaches out to offenders and lets them know the city cares about them and wants to help them, but, more importantly, wants the killings to stop.

Indeed, at the meeting, offenders ate pizza and drank sodas with the mayor, police, Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents, federal prosecutors and community members.

Berke, at a Friday news conference, said he told them his primary job was to "keep [them] safe, alive and out of prison."

His tone was so serious and heartfelt, said Paul Smith, the city's public safety coordinator, "I almost cried."

Although the offenders were there as a condition of their court supervision, they were assured it was not a trick. No one was waiting to arrest them. In fact, there were measures in place to help them.

However, they also were told the violence must stop, that they must spread that message within their groups, that they were accountable.

If the violence does not stop, they were told, no effort would be spared to arrest them and those with whom they run. Law enforcement agents would use the likes of parole violations, revoked probation, minor drug charges, missed child-support payments and unregistered vehicles. Where legal, they would cut off their electricity and unhook their cable TV.

"Go back and tell [them] it's coming," Kennedy said.

The proof, of course, will be borne out by a reduction in violence, but planners were overwhelmed by the response.

"What happened last night was magic," Kennedy said. "I've never seen what I saw last night. They were plugged in. They were turned on. It was church."

The offenders stayed until the room was being cleaned, one even telling Chattanooga Police Capt. Edwin McPherson he planned on "taking it back to my boys."

"It was one of the most incredible experiences I've ever been a part of," Berke said.

"The last thing they expected," said Chattanooga Police Lt. Todd Royval, "was respect. To be treated with respect is invaluable."

For police as much as for the offenders, it was a new day, McPherson said. Instead of providing a smothering presence in troubled neighborhoods, which in many cases led to less trust of law enforcement, police will concentrate on those perpetrating the crime and those with whom they associate.

"We've definitely bought into it," he said. "It made sense to us. Federal, state and local officers are all on board."

Smith, who said he was repeatedly profiled as a teenager because he lived in a mostly white neighborhood and had a car, said the strategy was "refreshing."

"As a black member of the community," he said, "I'm all in."

While the crime among those targeted makes Chattanooga appear to be "a relatively dangerous small city," Kennedy said, those involved are really "a very small, very distinctive population."

The fewer than 50 groups and fewer than 1,000 people may be involved in 60 percent of the shootings and homicides, but they make up only one-half a percent of the 170,000 people in Chattanooga, he said.

Without a safer city, though, it's difficult to have more economic development, better education opportunities and stronger neighborhoods, Berke said.

Things won't be perfect overnight, but a positive start to the initiative offers hope for a wider buy-in of an overall strategy that will improve life for all Chattanoogans.