Council to discuss city's controversial Violence Reduction Initiative next week

Chattanooga City Councilman Chip Henderson

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photo Chattanooga City Council member Russell Gilbert speaks as a committee discusses a proposed change in the city's sound ordinance Tuesday, Aug. 12, 2014, in Chattanooga, Tenn.
photo City Councilwoman Carol Berz during a past interview with the Times Free Press.

Chattanooga City Council members want to hear how the city's controversial Violence Reduction Initiative is working, but District Attorney General Neal Pinkston, who has hesitated to buy into his role in the initiative, says he is too busy to meet with them.

The council's Public Safety Committee has scheduled a special presentation at 3 p.m. on Tuesday and asked several local officials involved with the anti-gang measure to appear.

So far, police Chief Fred Fletcher and Juvenile Court Judge Rob Philyaw have confirmed they will attend, as has Paul Green, director of Hope for the Inner City, which is in charge of the community portion of VRI, according to Councilman Chip Henderson, chairman of the Public Safety Committee. Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris Poole, who supervises most of the gang-related cases in federal court, is also expected to attend, Henderson said.

But Pinkston told Henderson he has a busy caseload on Tuesdays, the normal council meeting day, and will not be available, although he offered to meet with council members in his office on another day.

That did not sit well with several council members.

"We are trying to find solutions and not point fingers," Councilman Russell Gilbert said.

"We need to know from 30,000 feet what are the challenges," council Chairwoman Carol Berz said. "The VRI is important, and we need to have a hearing and find out how it is working, and for people not to show up is not OK."

The VRI is supposed to reduce violence by convincing gang members that police and prosecutors will use every legal means at their disposal to target them and ensure they either stop shooting or they will end up in jail for as long as possible. At the same time, officials are offering gang members a range of social services.

The strategy, designed by criminologist David Kennedy, has reduced the number of homicides in several other cities where it has been tried, but that has not been the case in Chattanooga.

A Times Free Press investigation that tracked 229 of the 263 local VRI enforcement action arrests through state court found that varied prosecution had resulted in most offenders avoiding long sentences or significant jail time.

Pinkston has defended his office's reluctance to push VRI by arguing more VRI cases should face federal prosecution, where sentences are typically longer. Most of the 263 VRI cases brought in state court are misdemeanors and are therefore harder to prosecute to the maximum amount of time, officials say.

Contact staff writer Steve Johnson at sjohnson@times freepress.com, 423-757-6673, on Twitter @stevejohnsonTFP, or on Facebook, www.facebook.com/noogahealth.