DA, mayor, police chief and council trade shots on Violence Reduction Initiative

City Council subpoenas district attorney; Pinkston plans his own anti-gang unit, citing failure of VRI

In this 2015 file photo, District Attorney Neal Pinkston talks about the progress his cold case unit has made in solving unsolved killings in the city.

The debate over how to best fight gang violence in the city erupted into a political free-for-all Tuesday, with Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston trading accusations with Mayor Andy Berke, Police Chief Fred Fletcher, and most members of the city council.

At issue is the city's Violence Reduction Initiative, or VRI, which calls for the police, courts and social services to combine their firepower to convince gang members to stop shooting each other or else spend a long time behind bars.

Pinkston has indicated in the past that he is less than enthusiastic about the measure, claiming police officers have not brought good cases to his office to prosecute. A survey of those cases by the Times-Free Press in February concluded that in most instances, Pinkston's office was not successful in obtaining severe sentences for those arrested, and many of the cases were dismissed or settled with a plea bargain and a reduced sentence.

The city council, upset over Pinkston's attitude but also not happy with the VRI's apparent lack of clear results, had asked all of the key participants to show up Tuesday afternoon to discuss what should be done. All of the participants did so except Pinkston who instead issued a statement several hours before the meeting, saying that he is forming his own anti-gang task force.

In response, Police Chief Fletcher quickly rounded up a sizable group of law enforcement officials to appear with him before the council, including Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris Poole, Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond, and members of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), and the FBI.

At the end of their 90-minute session, the council voted overwhelmingly on a motion by Councilman Chris Anderson to subpoena Pinkston to appear before them next week. The vote was 8-0 with only Councilman Yusuf Hakeem abstaining.

And late Tuesday, Pinkston responded by releasing the contents of an e-mail he had just sent Mayor Berke and Police Chief Fletcher, criticizing them for implying that he was not supportive of their anti-gang efforts.

Whether the council can force Pinkston to show up is not clear. Under the city charter, the council has the power to issue subpoenas, but it is less clear what recourse they have if Pinkston refuses to comply.

In his open letter, addressed to "The citizens of Chattanooga and the city council," Pinkston said he believes the VRI has been a failure.

"The full council asked for my take on VRI," Pinkston wrote. "Let me be clear: My office is not the problem and I will not allow my staff to bear responsibility for the city's failure. The VRI is not working because the city isn't implementing many of the basic components the initiative requires."

Pinkston said the city has failed to collaborate with his office, has not used all available tools to target gang members, has not built enough federal cases and is not giving Pinkston enough evidence to work with. He also said the city's police officers don't buy into the initiative.

"All of this year's homicides and a majority of shootings to date remain unsolved," Pinkston wrote in a letter to council members.

He cited the fact that 11 of the 12 police officers assigned to the initiative asked to be reassigned in October 2015 as gang-related shootings remained steady.

Mayor Andy Berke, who launched VRI in March 2014, said today that he has reached out to Pinkston about VRI several times since late last year, but that Pinkston has not returned his calls or requests to meet.

"I am not interested in pointing fingers - I'm interested in ways we can make the city safer for Chattanoogans," Berke said in a statement. "That works best when everyone stops blaming others and comes to the table, accepts responsibility, and works together. Unfortunately, General Pinkston does not appear to be interested in doing that."

When Berke started VRI, he promised at the time that the city would see fewer shootings because of the initiative.

But while the city has funneled more than $1 million into VRI, there hasn't been a significant drop in gang-related shootings. Police recorded 63 gang-related shootings in 2014 and 80 in 2015.

Pinkston said he is going to ask federal, state and local law enforcement agencies to work with him to hold gang offenders accountable for violent crimes

It's currently unclear how his unit will differ from VRI, which calls for partnerships between the district attorney's office, the police department, federal prosecutors and social services to curb gang violence.

Asked if he backed Pinkston's call for an anti-gang task force, Police Chief Fletcher retorted that "I love the idea of an anti-gang task force-the one we already have."

For his part, Pinkston responded late today to Berke and Fletcher, denying that he had not been interested in fighting gang violence. "To intimate I have not been at the table to discuss ways to reduce gang violence is not only offensive but doesn't reflect the course of events throughout the inception of the VRI," he wrote in an e-mail to the mayor and police chief.

He added, "It's appalling that privately Chief Fletcher told me last night that if he were me he wouldn't appear at the City Council meeting either yet today he bashed me publicly for not attending.That's not my idea of how partners support each other."

Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at 423-7578-6525 or sbradbury@timesfreepress.com with tips or story ideas. Follow @ShellyBradbury.

Contact staff writer Steve Johnson, sjohnson@timesfreepress.com, 423-757-6673, on Twitter @stevejohnson TFP, or on Facebook, www.facebook.com/noogahealth.