Chattanooga mayor announces new safety measures amid violent week

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke speaks to members of the Chattanooga Times Free Press editorial board Wednesday, May 20, 2015, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

After 12 shootings in seven days killed one person and left 12 people wounded, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke said Friday he will take two new measures to try to combat violence.

Berke said in a news release that he will create a group of citizens to work with young men and women, fostering relationships in an attempt to keep kids out of trouble, especially during the summer.

In a meeting with Times Free Press editors on Friday, Berke said the coalition will serve as a hub to connect citizens who want to help stop violence with various opportunities, and the group will focus on three areas: encouraging the people committing violence to stop, providing programming for young people that encourages safe activities and engaging neighborhoods in conversations about violence and safety.

The group, dubbed the "Citizen Safety Coalition," will be led by Olivet Baptist Church Bishop Kevin Adams and Brainerd High School Vice Principal Charles Mitchell.

Berke said the outreach will differ from the social services the city already provides through the Violence Reduction Initiative, a strategy designed to stem gang-related gun violence by cracking down hard on gang members who are violent while offering help to gang members who put their guns down.

The VRI focuses solely on gang members and gun violence, while the coalition is intended to have a broader reach. Berke rolled out the VRI in 2014 with much fanfare, promising the city would see fewer shootings and real results that year.

However, shootings have remained steady as the strategy's key partners have bickered about the approach. There were 117 shootings in 2015, 105 in 2014 and 110 in 2013, according to police. As of Friday, there had been 38 shootings in Chattanooga so far this year. Those numbers do not include accidental, justified or self-inflicted shootings.

The mayor also said Friday that he will "expedite the acquisition" of a ballistics system that will allow police to quickly match particular shell casings to particular guns. The police department already had requested funding for the system, called the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network, in this year's upcoming budget, but the mayor's pledge should speed up the purchase.

Berke did not say how quickly the system will be available, but said he will begin the purchasing process immediately. The purchase, which will range between $120,000 and $135,000, will need to be approved by City Council members.

The NIBIN database of shell casings can match shell casings to guns as well as to other shell casings, which will allow police to tie one gun to multiple crimes, Police Chief Fred Fletcher said. It's similar to the process used to run fingerprints, he added.

"What we know is that there are serial guns out there," he said. "The same person uses the gun for multiple offenses, and they pass that along to other people, as well."

Police already have the ability to use the ballistic information network, but must send evidence to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation's lab in Nashville, which means the system is used on only about 30 cases per year.

With full access to NIBIN in Chattanooga, investigators should be able to run as many as 1,000 cases per year, Berke said.

He said he is frustrated by this week's violence but that he hopes the new technology will help police build cases and pull more illegal guns from the streets.

"I refuse to accept that there is nothing we can do," he said.

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