A Chattanooga intervention: A violence vaccine long overdue

A Chattanooga intervention: A violence vaccine long overdue

March 22nd, 2014 in Opinion Times

Chattanooga is staging a community intervention.

The stated intent is to stop violence. But the key to doing that is to stop a desperate hopelessness. And the key to that is an uncommon combination of respect, self-improvement options and targeted-group law enforcement.

The respect, though, is neither an act nor a handout. It's a connection to training or other help, perhaps a job offer. Mostly, at least on Thursday, it was just simple respect. A handshake. A standing introduction. An honest conversation. The eureka moment of a shared connection. A relaxing smile. It also was the moral voice of the community and strong and respected community leaders saying, "What you are doing is wrong, we want it to stop, and we want you with us."

The targeted law enforcement is not just a search for shooters in rival groups. It's a round-up of every member of the shooter's group or network on even the slightest infraction. Why? "Because if you arrest the last guy on either side who shot someone, you are left with two groups in the neighborhood with a standing vendetta. Nothing has changed," said David Kennedy, a criminologist from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and a consultant to Chattanooga here to help with the city's violence reduction initiative announced in October.

So on Thursday, 13 young men, all on some form of probation and known to operate in networks involved in violent crimes here, entered a room with the mayor, police officers, civic and religious leaders and social workers.

Those in the room stood when the 13 entered. The mayor welcomed them, shook their hands. He told them this meeting, this effort, was why he ran for mayor: to stop the violence, to save their lives, to keep them out of jail and help them find a way to be a productive part of Chattanooga society. Chattanooga shootings have skyrocketed in the past two years, and most of the violence involves about 50 groups and less than 1,000 individuals. That means less than half of 1 percent of the population is responsible for more than 60 percent of the city's violent crime.

One-by-one, members of the community -- district attorneys, federal prosecutors, police officers, preachers, educators -- addressed the group, shook hands, struck up conversations. Police officers served pizza. The mayor gave his unopened soft drink to one of the young men and got up to get himself another.

All the while, the constant message was this: You have other options, and we think you are worthy of us making this effort to show you these options. But if you mess up and touch a gun, or if members of your group mess up and someone is shot, this effort will shift to one of putting you -- and your group -- in jail.

"These are men who can tell you to F-off with their pores," Kennedy said. "But they were receptive, sitting on the edge of their chairs. They were right there. I've never seen what I saw last night. It was magic."

Kennedy has done meetings like this all over the country, and usually at the end officers offer food but most of the participants bolt for the door. On Thursday in Chattanooga, everyone stayed. Over pizza they talked with the mayor, the federal prosecutor and others. Police Capt. Edwin McPherson said he asked one young man if he liked the message. "Yes," came the answer. "I'm taking it back to my boys."

That's what the officer and the others wanted to hear -- that word of the options offered would spread.

Kennedy said many communities write violence problems off as the collateral damage of racism, but it's really more a result of what he calls racialism.

With every good intention, he said, police focused on inner-city neighborhoods where crime occurs and cracked down to arrest people for crimes that are never prosecuted in the suburbs -- like a teen walking down the street with a joint in his pocket, or an expired tag. Pretty soon, every black male in the neighborhood has been arrested for something and has been in jail and we have done permanent damage. We've made it harder for them to get a job, less likely to marry, their kids are more likely to be arrested, because they were in jail they failed in school. And now, we know they're less likely to trust police. That's when the community becomes a maze of vendetta-ridden gangs and networks.

"Go to these communities and look at the street shrines to the dead," Kennedy said. "Have you ever seen these in white communities? No."

Now it's time to try to reverse those unintended consequences. But it won't be a one-time thing, promised Chattanooga Police Lt. Todd Royval.

"You don't tell a kid how to behave and never talk to them again," he said.

The city's effort -- including Kennedy's consulting fee -- will cost up to $250,000.

If it stops the shooting, it's priceless.