Stop the shootings, mend Chattanooga

Stop the shootings, mend Chattanooga

December 15th, 2013 in Opinion Times

Photo by Staff File Photo/Times Free Press.

Anyone even slightly observant in Chattanooga knows we have a race, class and trust problem.

We really are two cities - the Chattanooga we aspire to be, and the Chattanooga so divided by race and poverty that the boundaries are even geographical.

This year in particular has been marked by that division with a brutal police beating of a black halfway house prisoner by white officers and by well over 100 shootings (300 since 2011). Most of the shootings have been in urban neighborhoods and involve black shooters and black victims.

In today's newspaper, a special section, "Speak No Evil," examines some local shootings and the urban community's sense that many are retaliatory - an enforcement of the community's own justice system imposed because many people there don't trust police.

The stories, told by Joan Garrett McClane and Todd South, show the struggle of a mother to get justice for her son in a community where "snitches get stitches, snitches get ditches." The mother plainly acknowledges that she grew up with a see-no-evil, speak-no-evil ethic. And she taught it to her son.

That ethic, fueled by the widening culture gaps, has repercussions that, in turn, drive the problem: When no one talks, police can't bring cases, and no cases mean no justice - except for more retaliatory, vengeful, vigilante-like crimes that will, once more, have plenty of witnesses who won't speak up.

In sheer numbers, the problem looks like this: In 1991, a record murder year, 49 homicides were tallied in Chattanooga, but 93 percent of the cases were cleared by police. Now police say 58 percent of open Chattanooga homicide and shooting investigations are at dead ends because of witness silence.

Clearly this is a problem spiraling out of control, but Chattanooga has been studying cities where authorities have successfully broken the pattern.

Mayor Andy Berke, police Chief Bobby Dodd and local federal and state prosecutors plan to use one of the success formulas. It is a focused deterrence program sometimes called the "High Point solution," but it is best described as part intervention, part redemption and part tough enforcement.

Here's how it has worked in High Point, N.C.: After a "worst-of-the-worst" arrest roundup, a new crop of violent suspects is "called in." The come-to-Jesus meeting often begins with a pastor offering help - groceries, job training - in exchange for listening and straightening up. Then police lay out a bit of evidence, such as: Jim runs with John, and here's what we know you did. Police promise to keep watching, and they make a pledge: You touch one bullet, one gun, make one misstep, and it will cost years of federal jail time.

High Point started its effort more than 15 years ago. Since then, the town of 100,000, has seen its annual murder tally drop from 20 to 2. Police, called pigs in 1997, now are called fair. Nine out of 10 felons warned with an intervention don't get in trouble again.

High Point, which borrowed its initiative from Boston, isn't the only success story. Youth homicides fell 63 percent in Boston after Harvard University researchers crunched police data and found that the violence problem there could be traced back to 1,300 serial offenders - less than 1 percent of youth citywide, but a group that was responsible for at least 60 percent of youth homicides.

When the program was implemented in Cincinnati, gang-related homicides fell 41 percent.

Chattanooga needs a similar turn-around, and Mayor Berke has put money and work on a problem that largely has just gotten lip-service from past administrations. Berke has even allocated money for the services of a special federal prosecutor.

Berke says he knows the effort must be a sustained one. One or two roundups will make a dent, but replacement criminals will bloom and flourish if concentrated surveillance wanes. That is what has happened here already to get us where we are today - reading too many headlines about too many shootings.

We have to do this and keep doing it, Berke says. And he's right. Along the way, we'll have the opportunity to knit our two Chattanoogas into one.