Amid spasms of violence, council members question mayor's anti-violence program

Chattanooga Police investigate the scene of the cities first homocide of the year Monday afternoon in the 1800 block of Wilson Street.
Chattanooga Police investigate the scene of the cities first homocide of the year Monday afternoon in the 1800 block of Wilson Street.
photo Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke speaks to members of the Chattanooga Times Free Press editorial board, May 20, 2015, in Chattanooga, Tenn.
photo Chattanooga City Council member Yusuf Hakeem speaks as a committee discusses a proposed change in the city's sound ordinance Tuesday, Aug. 12, 2014, in Chattanooga, Tenn.
photo The mother of the shooting victim awaits police against yellow crime scene tape Monday on Wilson Street.
photo Chattanooga Police Chief Fred Fletcher, right, talks to Sgt. Shawn Hickey before the start of last year's Riverbend Festival.

After a 20-year-old man was gunned down in broad daylight and two parents were shot to death in their Chattanooga home, a city councilman condemned Mayor Andy Berke's Violence Reduction Initiative as a "failed program."

Councilman Yusuf Hakeem said Sunday's double homicide of two parents in front of their 5-year-old son was the last straw that prompted him to withdraw his support for the anti-gang violence initiative.

"With anemic, sub-par results from Mayor Berke's Violence Reduction Initiative, I am asking that we consider another way of battling crime and safety issues," Hakeem wrote in a letter he sent to council members and Berke on Tuesday.

Berke launched the VRI in March 2014 with much fanfare, promising the city would see fewer shootings and real results that year. But since the start of the program, the city has not seen a dramatic drop in gang-related gun violence - which is what the initiative is designed to combat.

Last year, police recorded 80 gang-related shootings. That's higher than 2014 and 2013, when police recorded 63 and 71 gang-related shootings, respectively.

Gang-related homicides also haven't dropped since the initiative started - there were 14 gang-related homicides in 2015, 13 in 2014 and 11 in 2013, according to police records.

Hakeem said Thursday those numbers show Berke's flagship public safety program is a failure. He said the VRI, which is designed to offer Chattanooga's most violent gang members a choice between heavy police enforcement or help getting out of the gang life, is too narrowly focused. He said police attempts at enforcement haven't been enough to stop the violence.

He was joined by councilmen Larry Grohn and Ken Smith, who also questioned the program's effectiveness in comments made on Wednesday and Thursday.

"Do the residents of Chattanooga, and especially the affected areas, feel safer now than they did three years ago?," Grohn asked in a Facebook post.

Smith told local TV station WRCB that he "expected to see a reduction in violent crimes." However, he called for the anti-violence program to be evaluated, not eliminated.

Hakeem also said he hasn't ruled out a run for mayor when Berke's term expires in March 2017.

"I haven't closed the door on that," Hakeem said. "With me, it's got to be an extension of my service to God. That's just me. That's going to be a determining factor. If I can serve Jesus Christ better, in a position like that, I would seek it."

The city has spent just over $1 million on the program since it began almost two years ago. The city paid $580,000 to Hope for the Inner City, the nonprofit organization tasked with carrying out the social services part of the initiative, as well as $380,000 to the National Network of Safer Communities.

The city forked over an additional $120,000 to hire a special federal prosecutor, who was asked to take more local criminal cases into the federal court system, a key part of the enforcement side of the VRI.

Berke issued a short statement on Thursday in response to questions about Hakeem's letter, but did not mention the initiative by name. He also did not address the unwavering pace of gang-related shootings in the city.

"Through our multipronged approach, we have budgeted for more cops than ever before, hired a federal prosecutor, incorporated community policing and focused deterrence principles department-wide, sharpened our focus on chronic offenders, domestic violence, and gang violence, and established initiatives to intervene with juveniles headed on the wrong path," he said in the statement.

Berke's spokeswoman, Lacie Stone, said other cities in the nation have seen major increases in shootings and homicides, while Chattanooga's have risen only slightly. She suggested that police efforts have stymied the pace.

So far in 2016, there have been 17 shootings and three homicides in Chattanooga. At least 10 of those shootings were gang-related, according to police.

Chattanooga's latest spate of violence began on Jan. 25, when 20-year-old Thomas Simmons was shot to death while walking on Sheridan Avenue. Then, on Sunday, Lakita Hicks, 25, and George Dillard, 24, were shot to death inside their home on East 13th Street. Their 5-year-old son witnessed the shooting and called 911.

On Wednesday, a shooter opened fire on an SUV on Brainerd Road, causing the vehicle to run a red light and create an eight-vehicle crash. No one was seriously injured, but the brazen mid-morning shooting on one of Chattanooga's most-traveled roads unnerved the city. The shooter escaped.

City Councilman Chip Henderson said he doesn't think anyone is satisfied with the results of the VRI right now, but added that the initiative has had some successes. He's willing to give it another year.

"Gang-related crime didn't start overnight and we're not going to fix it overnight," he said. "I think you weigh your successes against your failures."

And police Chief Fred Fletcher said in a statement Thursday he will continue to carry out the initiative and the principles behind it.

"As a law enforcement professional, I believe focused deterrence is the right way to police," he said. "When you boil it down, it's just good police work - officers spend their time investigating, interrogating and arresting the worst offenders in the city. I'm not willing to compromise that."

Since the start of the Violence Reduction Initiative, 261 gang members have been arrested because of it, according to police.

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

TIMELINE

April 2013: Mayor-elect Andy Berke first pitches VRI to city July 2013: Berke marks 100 days in office, promises the city will see fewer shootings by 2014 December 2013: Berke pledges to bring VRI to Chattanooga March 2014: Police and city leaders hold the first call-in June 2014: Richard Bennett, the main contact for gang members in VRI, is arrested June 2014: City and police leaders cut ties with Bennett June 2014: The city asks for a new community partner to replace Bennett July 2014: City choses Hope for the Inner City as Bennett's replacement August 2014: Police say 58 people have landed jobs through VRI September 2014: Two of three charges against Bennett are dropped October 2014: Police plan to expand the VRI effort to target non-gang members Source: Times Free Press archives