City of Chattanooga expands anti-violence push after bloody week of gunfire

Weekend of violence

Four shootings injure six people in Chattanooga over 31 hours

photo In this file photo, David Kennedy, right, listens as Mayor Andy Berke fields questions at a March 2014 press conference inside City Hall to address gang violence. Kennedy is the architect of the Violence Reduction Initiative, and is quoted as saying that residents should be able to tell fairly quickly if the strategy isn't working. The rate of shootings in Chattanooga is basically unchanged year-over-year.

A week of shootings

Oct. 20 - 2300 Wilson Street - Apprentice Dewayne Berry, 20, is shot multiple times and dies from his injuries around 11 p.m.Oct. 22 - 404 Tunnel Blvd. - At 1:21 p.m., Kenny Hall, 24, was shot multiple times and died from his injures.Oct. 22 - 4628 Oakwood Drive - At 4:54 p.m., a 17-year-old boy and 16-year-old girl were each shot once. Potential suspects were taken into custody at the time. The injuries were not life-threatening.Oct. 25 - 1406 Carousel Road - At 9:11 p.m., Travis Rivers, 22, and Zachary Spralling, 21, were shot and suffered minor and not life-threatening injuries. The suspect vechicle was described as burgandy.Oct. 26 - 1205 Grove Street - At 3 a.m., two people, Nathan James Reese, 30, and Anthony Dijaun Visher, 20, were found suffering from gunshot wounds. Both were in critical condition a day after the shooting.Oct. 26 - 202 W. 38th Street - At 3 p.m., police found Kevin LeVerne Smith, 41, suffering from a gunshot wound that was not life-threatening. Nadia Renee Hatten/Brooks, 37, was charged with attempted first-degree murder in what police called a domestic violence incident.Oct. 27 - Central Avenue - At 4:10 a.m., police found shooting victim Terrence Lebron Bivens, 28, dead on Central Avenue.Source: Chattanooga Police Department

In a seven-day span that ended Monday, 10 people were shot in Chattanooga and three of them died in one of the most violent weeks of 2014.

The spate of gun violence put a spotlight on the city's Violence Reduction Initiative, the mayor's flagship public safety effort that was rolled out in March amid optimism and high expectations.

But eight months after city leaders, police and community members started using VRI to target violent gang members, the city's violent crime numbers haven't budged.

The city has not seen any major declines in the number of shootings - and homicides are up.

In all of 2013, 19 people were slain; 14 of those were shooting-related deaths. So far this year, 25 people have been killed in the city, 17 of those by firearms.

The rate of shootings in Chattanooga is basically unchanged year-over-year. Police recorded 123 shootings in all of 2013, compared to 107 shootings so far this year. That's an average pace of about 10 shootings per month in both years.

David Kennedy, architect of the anti-violence strategy adopted in Chattanooga and across the country, said in a December 2013 interview that residents should be able to tell fairly quickly if the VRI strategy is working.

"If homicides, gun woundings for instance, go down, then things are moving in the right direction," Kennedy told reporters in a conference call. "If they don't, it's not working."

Kennedy said at the time that cities often see decreases in violence after the first or second call-in.

But Lt. Todd Royval, who is leading the police effort in VRI, said the methods are working in Chattanooga even though the city hasn't seen a drastic improvement.

"It doesn't mean it's not working," he said. "It is working."

Royval emphasized that the initiative is still young here and that many offenders or ex-offenders have reached out for help and gotten jobs, while others have been put in jail. Still, he said, he's always looking for ways to lower the number of shootings or homicides.

As part of that search, Royval said police turned to the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where Kennedy is director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control.

Royval said they identified a missing piece of the violence puzzle in Chattanooga - chronic, nongang offenders.

Hours after the week's third homicide victim was found dead on Central Avenue on Monday, police said they plan to expand the reach of VRI from solely focusing on violent gang or group members to include chronic violent offenders who are not members of gangs.

Originally, VRI offered violent gang or group members a clear choice between getting out of trouble or going to jail with heavy sentences. Offenders who are targeted as part of VRI are either visited individually during what police call "custom notifications" or attend a group meeting dubbed a "call-in" to hear about the new VRI rules.

So far this year, VRI leaders have hosted four call-ins and conducted about 50 custom notifications, Royval said. But while the initiative sparked as much as a 20 percent drop in violent crime when it was implemented in other cities, violent crime in Chattanooga hasn't dropped. Royval said he hopes targeting chronic offenders will help move the crime rate lower.

"Every city is different," Royval said. "Everyone wants to see a huge reduction right off the bat. We're not seeing it, so we need to step back, refocus and see what we are missing so we can get the results everybody wants."

Going forward, police will identify these offenders and use the same VRI methods with the group that they've been using with gang and group members.

"We'll overlay that on top of the VRI," said Royval. "The VRI is group- or gang-related, and that's the difference. Chronic offenders may not have anything to do with a gang, but they're causing our community problems."

Paul Smith, the city's public safety coordinator, also emphasized that Chattanooga's VRI is still young.

"Right now we're talking about baseline data," Smith said. "It takes more than eight months to get data like this - in High Point, that 20 percent reduction was in two years. The population is much smaller than ours and the demographics are not configured like ours."

Smith said that VRI is reaching some gang members - 61 have gotten jobs, 23 are in mentorship programs and seven are earning their GEDs, he said. An additional 90 members of violent gangs have been put in jail, Royval said. Seven of those are in federal prisons.

But that progress is not reflected in overall crime numbers. This week's shootings were spurred in part by retaliatory shootings between gangs, Assistant Chief Tracy Arnold said Monday.

Not all of the shootings were gang-related, but at least one or two of the victims had either received a custom notification or attended a call-in as part of VRI, Royval said.

The same held true for suspects, he said.

Police have arrested two people so far in the seven shootings over the past week. Nadia Hatten, 37, was charged with attempted first-degree murder after police say she chased her boyfriend for two blocks and shot him in the leg during a domestic dispute on West 38th Street.

And Geonta Gaines, 19, was charged with two counts of aggravated assault after he walked up to a crowd at the Washington Hills Recreation Center and started shooting. He grazed a 16-year-old girl's arm and hit a 17-year-old boy in the arm.

Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or with tips or story ideas.