City Council votes to subpoena district attorney as gang-violence spat escalates

City Councilman Chris Anderson, left, makes a motion at a city council meeting.

A simmering dispute about Chattanooga's Violence Reduction Initiative boiled over into an all-out political war Tuesday when the City Council voted to subpoena Hamilton County District Attorney General Neal Pinkston to force him to answer questions about his role in the anti-gang violence strategy.

The decision came during an afternoon meeting the council organized to hear from the key agencies involved in the VRI. Although several agencies sent representatives to the meeting, Pinkston refused to attend.

photo District Attorney General Neal Pinkston

He told the council last week he could never meet on a Tuesday - the council's normal day to meet - because of his schedule.

"He clearly will not engage us unless we compel him to," Councilman Chris Anderson said before proposing the subpoena. The council voted 8-0 to subpoena Pinkston to appear on March 29. Councilman Yusuf Hakeem abstained.

The council's unprecedented move was, in part, a reaction to Pinkston's actions earlier in the day.

Hours before Tuesday's meeting, Pinkston told council members the VRI is a failure and announced he will start his own gang task force, separate from the VRI.

In a letter sent to council members, Pinkston listed six reasons he believes gang violence hasn't dropped in the city, ranging from a lack of collaboration at the beginning of VRI to a lack of evidence in ongoing cases.

Pinkston voiced reservations about the VRI in November 2015, and in February, a Times Free Press investigation found most targeted offenders face little jail time, even though the VRI calls for heavy penalties against targeted offenders.

Gang violence in the city hasn't dropped since the initiative began in March 2014 - police recorded 63 gang-related shootings in 2014 and 80 in 2015. On Tuesday, Pinkston insisted his office is not at fault for the continued violence.

"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," Pinkston wrote. "The VRI is not working because the city isn't implementing many of the basic components the initiative requires."

Both Mayor Andy Berke and Police Chief Fred Fletcher quickly fired back.

Fletcher brought a cadre 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, and the FBI.

"The district attorney says he wants to create a new table to bring people together," Fletcher told the City Council. "I'm here to tell you, we have been at this table for a long time, waiting for him to show up."

Pinkston did not return multiple requests for comment Tuesday, so it's unclear how his task force would differ from the partnership of agencies that are already working together to combat gang violence as part of the VRI.

Pinkston also has not said which agencies have agreed to join his task force. Chattanooga Housing Authority Police Chief Felix Vess said Pinkston called him at about 3 p.m. Monday to ask if he'd be interested in joining the task force, and Vess agreed.

"It was a very quick phone call," Vess said.

The Hamilton County Sheriff's Office also agreed to participate in the task force, spokesman Matt Lea said. Nothing formal has been discussed, he added. A spokesman for ATF said the agency is not involved in Pinkston's task force.

Pinkston has not asked Chattanooga police to be a part of the new group, according to police.

The city has funneled more than $1 million into VRI, which Berke rolled out with much fanfare promising the city would see fewer shootings. On Tuesday, Berke said he has reached out to Pinkston about VRI several times since November, but 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."

In the email to council members, Pinkston gave several reasons why the VRI hasn't impacted gang violence in the city. He said investigators are not building enough federal cases, where sentences are typically harsher than state court. He said police officers aren't buying into the VRI and pointed to the abrupt transfer of 11 of the 12 members of CPD's street crimes unit as proof.

Pinkston also said the city should use methods other than criminal prosecution to target gang members - like cutting off stolen cable or electricity, and claimed the city hasn't done that. He said investigators aren't building cases that prove crimes are committed as part of a gang's business, and he can't use gang enhancement statutes without stronger cases.

Most of the 263 people who have been targeted as part of VRI were arrested on misdemeanor charges, a Times Free Press investigation showed.

"It should not surprise anyone that 200 misdemeanor arrests have not curbed violence in our city," Pinkston wrote in the letter. "Suddenly, a few City Council members are now using the media to point fingers at me, although they haven't bothered to call me at any point in the past 24 months to discuss VRI or the way my office prosecutes cases."

Although Pinkston did not comment to the Times Free Press, his office forwarded an email that Pinkston sent to Berke and Fletcher at about 4:30 p.m. Tuesday - as the meeting with the council was underway.

In the email, Pinkston takes the two to task for their comments.

"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 through the inception of the VRI," he wrote.

He also claimed Fletcher told him privately Monday night that "if he were me, he wouldn't appear at the City Council meeting either."

Fletcher said his comments to Pinkston in that conversation were taken out of context.

"It's unfortunate that General Pinkston misrepresented or misunderstood the tone of a comment," Fletcher said. "I am not interested in a public discourse about our relationship. I would prefer to focus on the work of keeping the community safe."

Staff writer Steve Johnson contributed to this report.

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