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Ask the chief of police, ask higher-ups in the mayor's office, ask the nonprofit tasked with rehabbing gang members netted by the city, and they will tell you that the social service arm of the the city's Violence Reduction Initiative is definitely working.

 

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Gang members are giving up their colors. They are taking jobs and keeping jobs. Some are changed.

 

"Altogether, we've gotten 76 people jobs," said Chattanooga Public Safety Coordinator Paul Smith last week.

In addition to jobs, Smith says the VRI has an attorney helping gang members get their records expunged, a therapist offering free counseling and advocates who go to court with the gang members and explain their situations to a judge.

"We've bought clothing for guys. We wash clothes for guys. You name it, we've done it, picking them up from work, taking them to work, taking them to get their hair cut," said Smith.

But internal documents from Hope for the Inner City, the nonprofit with a city contract to assist gang members who choose to turn from violence, and emails between city leaders and outside nonprofits reveal a sobering picture of Mayor Andy Berke's major crime-fighting initiative and show there is growing frustration with how the program's community outreach is being managed.

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Father To The Fatherless Report

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In August, a major foundation pulled financial support for VRI because of poor communication and planning on the part of Smith, city emails show.

Also, documents from Father to the Fatherless, a training and mentoring program run by Hope for the Inner City, show job numbers and success stories may have been inflated.

Smith says 76 gang members have been given jobs and eight are enrolled in GED programs. Vincent Boozer, executive director of Father to the Fatherless, told the Times Free Press last week that, of the 100 gang members who have taken classes through Hope for the Inner City since VRI launched, 73 have landed jobs and all have kept them.

Yet Boozer's required report to the mayor's office at the end of November told a different story. Of the 40 people he listed as enrolled in Father to the Fatherless, he wrote that 12 had full- or part-time jobs and two were attending Chattanooga State. Four have been arrested since signing up for the program and at least 15 either missed classes or never showed, the report stated.

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Johnny Smith Email

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"(Name removed) has not returned the office's request for him to call our office as of Dec. 3," the program summary report stated.

"(Name removed) has violated his probation and is facing additional criminal charges."

"(Name removed) has falsified about attending navigation classes."

Times Free Press interviews with participants in the program show the job numbers may be even lower. Of the 12 listed in the report as having jobs, six spoke to the Times Free Press; three said they are no longer working and court records show two more have been arrested.

When asked Thursday whether job numbers were inflated, city spokeswoman Lacie Stone said that while 76 people have at one time or another been placed in jobs, mostly through a temporary staffing agency on Brainerd Road, 42 are actively working. However, the city refused to provide names so the claim could be verified.

On Friday, the city provided a new list of participants in Father to the Fatherless that detailed 96 participants, but the names were redacted. That list showed further contradiction. It said 25 people currently had jobs, eight had been arrested, 10 were working toward their GEDs, five were attending Chattanooga State and 20 hadn't responded to calls or attended classes.

David Kennedy, who pioneered the methods the city has adopted and is being paid $240,000 to consult on the VRI, said he is impressed with the work the city and its partners have done to place violent offenders in jobs. It takes most cities years to earn trust and get just 10 percent of targeted violent offenders to reach out for help, he said.

The numbers the city has reported to him are "unheard of," he said.

"Chattanooga is doing tremendously better than most other cities ever do," Kennedy said on Thursday.

Still, he said, it is common for violent offenders who receive work opportunities to leave those opportunities behind.

"They have far too extensive records. They can't pass background checks. They can't pass drug tests. They have terrible work habits. They have never held a job before. They don't have the education attainment that they need, even the most fundamental skills to get work," Kennedy said.

The real measure of VRI success, he said, is whether or not violence is reduced.

"The only outcome that matters is homicides and shootings," he said.

At the end of 2014, gang-involved shootings had declined by 18 percent from 2013, but homicides increased by 42 percent.

 

Chattanooga's VRI is modeled on a policing strategy first implemented in Boston by Kennedy, a renowned criminologist and John Jay College of Criminal Justice professor. In the past few years the strategy, called "focused deterrence" in law enforcement circles, has gained support from the federal government and is being adopted in cities across the country.

The strategy promises swift prosecution for gang members who choose to continue violence, but it also guarantees help for those willing to change. Every few months the city's most violent offenders are called in for a meeting with law enforcement and the community and they are told they have a choice. Put down the guns and make a change or become targets for police, prosecutors and federal agents.

Records show the city's $290,000 contract with Hope for the Inner City says gang members will be given assistance with mental health treatment, education, employment training and placement, crisis intervention, drug treatment, housing, mentoring, emergency services and case management.

And data from other cities show that the strategy, which mixes a harsh warning with a genuine offer of aid, has helped to reduce homicides and shootings.

The National Network for Safe Communities, which oversees the implementation of Kennedy's strategies across the country, touts success in most of the cities where focused deterrence has been introduced. In Hartford, Connecticut homicides decreased by 30 percent in the first year of using Kennedy's model. In Baton Rouge, yearly homicide rates dropped 23 percent in 2013 after the program was introduced one year earlier, according to news outlets. In Boston, youth homicide was reduced by 63 percent, the organization's website states.

Kennedy also has said that the model works to ease tension between police and over-policed communities. Rather than saturating neighborhoods, police focus their efforts on the few worst offenders.

Before he was elected mayor, Berke lobbied for the approach in the state Senate. Once in office as the city's chief executive, he quickly worked to garner community support and stated on his campaign website he had "no doubt we will see real results in 2014."

One of the people he approached to help financially was Johnny Smith, head of the McKenzie Foundation, a nonprofit that funds community initiatives. Smith attended meetings with city staff who were planning the VRI. He met with Kennedy and attended a call-in with gang members.

He was sold on the approach, an internal email shows, and when he was told that each group of gang members called in to meet with police had $50,000 worth of needs, he pledged help in October 2013.

He lobbied other well-known foundations -- Lyndhurst, Benwood, the Community Foundation -- to pledge additional dollars. The initial offer was $100,000, with $50,000 coming from the foundations collectively and $50,000 from the McKenzie Foundation. It was called the "Big Small Stuff" fund and kept at the Community Foundation managed by Pete Cooper, records show.

But 10 months later, in August, Johnny Smith send a scathing email to City Hall saying he was hesitant to move forward in his partnership with the city. In the email he complained of little communication, poor planning and a lack of initiative to involve "proven and solid organization" in the VRI strategy.

"I tried to connect you with First Things First and Metropolitan Ministries. Both agencies have expressed confusion in the lack of response from you about their participation," he wrote to Paul Smith on Aug. 20.

Johnny Smith also expressed frustration that little of the money set aside by the foundations had been spent.

"The money that is at the Community Foundation has been barely used," he wrote. "I still don't understand what happened to the initial 50k need you presented from the first group. Why aren't these things being handled with the money you asked for and received at the Community Foundation?"

He wrote that he loved the VRI program but was suspending approval of funds and any additional money unless a strategic plan with accountability is in place.

"I cannot further risk my reputation and resources to ask for the financial commitment of my colleagues and services of social service agencies for programs and assistance with unresponsiveness," he wrote. "I am very sorry I have to write this letter, but I really feel I don't have any choice."

When asked about the email last week, Johnny Smith said Paul Smith told him later that the reason most of the money had not been used was that gang members in Hope for the Inner City programs had jobs and were self-sufficient.

But last week, Paul Smith told the Times Free Press that the gang members do have financial needs that are being met by the "Big Small Stuff" fund at the Community Foundation.

Records show the mayor's office has touted the "Big Small Stuff" fund to John Jay College in New York, which helps oversee the local VRI and collects data on the initiative, and in one email an official asks Paul Smith for written protocols and guidelines for the fund.

"This is something other cities are increasingly asking about, and we are in the process of collecting protocols wherever they have been created so that we can offer recommendations and sample language based on what seems to work best where," wrote Louisa Aviles, strategic operations and policy specialist at National Network for Safe Communities.

The city denied that the email between Johnny Smith and Paul Smith existed when the Times Free Press requested the public record. On Friday, Berke said he was never told that the McKenzie Foundation had pulled funding. Later in the day, the city sent a copy of Johnny Smith's email to the newspaper.

No plan was made for how to spend the money, and that should have been done, Berke said.

"This is something we need to work on," Berke said.

 

Hope for the Inner City was selected to manage the social services portion of the VRI after the city's initial choice, Richard Bennett, director of A Better Tomorrow, was arrested on drug and alcohol charges.

The choice surprised many nonprofit leaders, who told the Times Free Press, on condition their names not be used, that the organization seemed financially shaky.

The nonprofit's most recent tax reports show that, since 2009, public financial support of the organization declined by more than 35 percent, from $903,000 to $580,000. The organization lost money the last two years and had $310,452 before receiving more than $300,000 from the city, tax records show.

Paul Green, director of Hope for the Inner City, said the nonprofit is financially sound and since 2013 the center's support has been going up.

According to its city contract, Hope for the Inner City's major task was to place gang members in jobs, but much of that work apparently has been done by a single temporary staffing agency on Brainerd Road, according to the agency owner, who has been closely involved in VRI.

J.W. Cole, who pastors Greater St. Mary Missionary Baptist Church and owns Command Center Staffing, said the city and police have been sending him VRI participants and others to place in jobs. Most jobs are day labor positions paid in cash; others are at restaurants for minimum wage.

Cole believes the mayor exaggerates the role city staff and Hope for the Inner City have played in finding gang members work. In fact, he said, he has been responsible for most of the job placement. On Friday, Berke and officials with Hope for the Inner City admitted that almost all placement has been through Command Center.

"Pastor Cole is solely responsible for [job] placement. We just keep track of their placement and where they are working and check on them," Boozer said.

Berke said temporary work is often all that gang members can qualify for and is a good way for them to prove themselves and move into permanent employment.

But Cole said he believes the mayor is using the VRI to advance his political ambitions.

"If you're running a city, would you say, 'Hey, our program is not working. We're sending them behind the scenes to Command Center?'" he said.

He said he has asked for a contract with the city but has been ignored. Because of that, he said, he has been setting aside applications from those referred by the city and making walk-in clients unaffiliated with the program his priority.

"For a moment I went on freeze with the mayor," he said. "I have a pile of applications and I really wasn't working them."

Berke said no one should be helping VRI participants for credit.

Greg Miller, who owns a construction company and runs an organization called People United Living Love, tells a similar story. Miller's organization had been named as a VRI partner, but he is no longer involved because of frustrations with program decisions.

He said one of the gang members who recently met with the mayor about the need for jobs came to him for help finding work because the city was not assisting him.

"I'm doing my own thing now," he said.

The final word on the success of the VRI's social service function will be independent research conducted by the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies.

Before Berke was elected, the Ochs Center received a grant to conduct research on gang activity. However, Berke disbanded former Mayor Ron Littlefield's gang task force, and the center had to modify the grant to include the VRI. Federal approval to modify the research was received in the last few weeks, said Ochs Center director Mary Tanner.

Moving forward, Ochs will be assessing what gang members get jobs, how long they keep them, whether they re-offend, whether they become victims of violence and other success measures.

All they need to get started is the data, which the Ochs Center says has not yet been provided.

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick Smith at jsmith@timesfreepress.com or (423) 757-6659. Joan Garrett McClane contributed to this report.

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