Chattanooga's first anti-violence call-in meeting a success, expert says
Young men leaned forward in their chairs. They listened as prosecutors, police, outreach workers, city leaders made a plea to them: Put down your guns.
About 25 men, all on probation, gathered Thursday night to hear that help is available to them if they want it. The men were called into the meeting, held as the first step in Chattanooga's Violence Reduction Initiative aimed at reducing gun violence in the city.
"This was the best first one I've ever seen, and in a lot of ways it was the best I've ever seen," said David Kennedy, a criminologist from John Jay School of Criminal Justice in New York, whose crime model, called the Violence Reduction Initiative, is being emulated in Chattanooga. "There was something special that came together."
Kennedy began doing "call-in" meetings in 1996 in an effort to reach those who were connected to violence. Varying degrees of success have occurred in other cities across the country that have followed Kennedy's model
Kennedy has been in Chattanooga to help roll out the Violence Reduction Initiative this week.
He always makes a point of observing those invited to the meeting.
"I watch their expressions, their body language, their attitudes, and I had never ever seen every every single one of them receptive open and paying attention from the the very beginning," he said of last night's group of young men.
"The got it from the moment they sat down. Every single one of them stayed when they were free to go. They talked to the mayor. They talked to the police. They talked to the prosecutors. Some of them are still in there. It was just extraordinary," he said.
Normally the people invited to the meeting - typically young men - are sometimes hostile.
"They are pretending they don't care. They give off this withdrawn, passive aggressive attitude," he said.
There was none of that during the meeting Thursday night. Some even wept.
"They clearly knew they were being treated with respect," he said.
The vendettas that spur much of the city's gun violence will be an important factor in helping the police and communities prevent more bloodshed.
Chattanooga is a small city where people know each other. The population that commits crimes is even smaller. Criminal groups often form alliances. Those connections are useful when carrying out vendettas.
And Chattanooga has more vendettas than most cities, said David Kennedy, a criminologist from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
More than half of the city's violence involves group members as victims or suspects, he said Thursday in Chattanooga.
"I've never seen anything like this before," he told an auditorium full of Chattanooga Police Department supervisors -- sergeants and above.
Kennedy uses the word "group" rather than "gang" because the latter often connotes a highly organized association with an illegal economic purpose. Most of the groups in Chattanooga are not economically stable, he said. Their hierarchy is loosely organized and, at times, chaotic.
Hours later, Kennedy along with police officers, prosecutors and community members, would confront a selected group of people who have strong connections to the city's violence.
Even though it's unclear why there are so many alliances and vendettas in Chattanooga, it's actually good news.
It means crime will decline quickly when the Violence Reduction Initiative rolls out, Kennedy said.
"People are going to talk about it and word is going to travel," he said.
Vendettas can be over girls. They can be about respect.
In January, a 13-year-old boy was gunned down at his front door when gangs were looking to target a gang member. The dispute started over a girl.
Yet out of Chattanooga's population of more than 171,000, there are only between 650 and 860 or so active members in 49 groups.
"The community is not doing this," Kennedy said. "Less than 900 people in the city are doing this. No one wants their child dead."
Kennedy also arrived at these findings about those responsible for the city's violence:
• Eight larger groups contain multiple smaller sets.
• Many members have multiple group affiliations.
• Eight smaller groups are organized around families.
• The gangs range between two and 75 members.
• One-third of homicide victims and almost 40 percent of nonfatal shooting victims are members.
Kennedy, who has worked in numerous cities, told officers that many of the people connected to shootings lack hope. They abide by a street code. But when pressed, there is no code. There is no loyalty. There's prison, or death.
The small percentage of young men committing crime on the street say they aren't afraid.
Don't believe them, Kennedy said.
They live in neighborhoods that are more dangerous than war zones, Kennedy said. Gang members have a 1-in-7 chance of being killed, he said, adding a soldier in Afghanistan's chance of stepping on a land mine is less than 1-in-100.
The goal of the city's anti-violence initiative is to stop the shootings, and to keep young black men alive and out of prison.
After months of preparation, the effort began in earnest Thursday night.
Twenty-five people handpicked by Chattanooga police were invited to a call-in based on years of violent crime data analyzed by Kennedy's team. The message to them was simple: You can get help if you want it. Prison is also an option. But the shootings must stop.
Everyone who attended the call-in was given a card. If they want help, they call the number to receive outreach and resources, such as counseling, or help getting a GED or job skills.
Paul Smith, the city's public safety coordinator, said he hopes the call-in enables them to reach even beyond those called in. It's really sending a message to the neighborhoods, he said.
"You want people to realize you really care about them regardless of what they are bringing to the table," he said. "Then they're willing to work with you and allow you to build them up."
Many will continue breaking the law, but the shootings will stop, Kennedy said. That's the definition of success.
In many places, only a couple step forward for help at first.
"If we have more than 12 that reach out, that would be a miracle," Smith said. "We're preparing to have capacity to deal with 25 right off the top."
Richard Bennett, director of A Better Tomorrow, a nonprofit that offers life skills and mentoring, will work to match mentors and services with anyone who wants help.
"It's about being committed and showing hope," Bennett said.
However, if those invited choose not to reach out to receive help and the violence continues, there will be consequences. Police will use all resources to crack down on the gangs. Word will get out that violence is not tolerated.
The message is simple: If a body hits the ground, it's open season on their set.
Now the clock ticks. Will the phone ring or will bullets continue to fly?
Contact staff writer Beth Burger at email@example.com or 423-757-6406. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/abburger.