A weeklong political brawl over Chattanooga's Violence Reduction Initiative ended Tuesday when the City Council voted to withdraw its subpoena against Hamilton County District Attorney General Neal Pinkston.
The council traded shots with Pinkston for days in an escalating escapade that began when Pinkston refused to meet with council members to answer questions about the VRI on March 22. The city's anti-gang violence strategy has cost more than $1 million but has produced few quantitative changes in the pace of gang violence.
Council members invited key VRI leaders, including police Chief Fred Fletcher, to the council to explain and defend the initiative. Pinkston not only skipped the meeting, but sent council members a letter that declared the VRI was a failure and announced he'd be starting his own gang violence task force, separate from the VRI.
Faced with Pinkston's absence, the council voted to subpoena him in an attempt to force Pinkston to appear before it on Tuesday. But Pinkston fired back after he was served Thursday, saying he would ignore the subpoena because the City Council couldn't enforce it.
Councilman Chip Henderson, chairman of the Public Safety Committee, called for the subpoena's withdrawal "in the spirit of cooperation," announcing it had achieved its objective of bringing Pinkston to the table and citing an upcoming meeting between the district attorney and Mayor Andy Berke.
Henderson also noted that Pinkston refused to comply with the subpoena's request that he meet with the Public Safety Committee.
Pinkston declined to comment Tuesday.
Councilman Chris Anderson, who made the motion to subpoena Pinkston the week before, voiced support for Henderson's recommendation, which was approved in a 9-0 vote.
"I couldn't agree with Councilman Henderson more," Anderson said. "I think our motive was to encourage a dialog, a partnership and cooperation, and it seems like that has succeeded."
Pinkston is scheduled to meet with Mayor Andy Berke on Friday. The two offices have exchanged at least seven emails and six phone calls since November in an effort to schedule such a meeting, according to records and the mayor's office.
While Pinkston has said he supports the VRI, he also has been vocally opposed to one of the key tenants of the initiative. The VRI is designed to offer gang members a choice between ending the violence or facing the full force of the legal system.
In face-to-face meetings with gang members, officials promise they'll target gang members who keep on shooting and that those particular gang members will face heavier legal penalties for their actions than non-targeted people.
Pinkston repeatedly has said he cannot treat cases differently just because they are a part of the VRI. In February, a Times Free Press investigation found that most gang members targeted by the VRI face little jail time. Most are sentenced to probation, and only seven of 229 offenders received the maximum punishment as set out in state law.
The investigation is what originally prompted the City Council to ask to meet with Pinkston, who has staunchly maintained that his office is not at fault for the unwavering pace of gang violence. Police recorded 71 gang-related shootings in 2013, 63 gang-related shootings in 2014 and 80 in 2015.
Pinkston instead blamed the initiative's failure on a myriad of other factors. He alleges investigators are not building enough federal cases, where sentences are typically harsher than in state court, and that police officers aren't buying into the VRI.
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. He pointed out that most of the people targeted by the VRI have been arrested on misdemeanor charges.
On Tuesday, police department communications coordinator Kyle Miller said police are ready to put the spat behind them.
"We are confident everyone can now continue to focus on helping our community be and feel safe," he said.
But at least two City Council members continued to voice concerns about the VRI at Tuesday's meeting. Councilman Larry Grohn complained that he still has not received the data he seeks concerning social program results, while Councilman Yusuf Hakeem voiced a desire for a comprehensive understanding of the process.
"I wouldn't say there is a dispute, but there's not a unity of understanding as to the social side of VRI," said Hakeem, who expressed interest in joining the mayor's VRI working group, which includes the public safety coordinator, the deputy chief of staff and members of Hope for the Inner City and Father to the Fatherless.
Councilman Moses Freeman was quick to criticize what he described as splintered efforts by council members regarding its interactions with the mayor's administration, calling the VRI a "sexy project" that has been politicized.
Henderson said he will clarify the needs voiced by Hakeem and Grohn and address those concerns with the Public Safety Committee.
Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6525 with tips or story ideas. Follow @ShellyBradbury.
Contact staff writer Paul Leach at email@example.com or 423-757-6481.