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Staff photo by Doug Strickland / Chattanooga City Councilman Larry Grohn listens to a presentation on the city's wastewater infrastructure during an afternoon agenda session at the City Council building on March 29, 2016, in Chattanooga.
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Chattanooga City Councilman Larry Grohn is backed by family and friends on the steps of City Hall Tuesday afternoon as he announces his candidacy for mayor.

Chattanooga mayoral challenger Larry Grohn launched a broadside this week against Mayor Andy Berke's anti-crime plan, saying the 3-year-old Violence Reduction Initiative is "actually making crime worse in Chattanooga."

Among a litany of charges in a lengthy news release, Grohn claimed the average number of monthly shootings has grown by 55 percent since 2014. The Chattanooga City Council member said his mayoral run was sparked by "a year that has seen the worst season of violence in recent memory and disturbing trends showing that Berke's crime plan is doing more harm than good.

Berke did not respond to an emailed request for comment Friday. City Hall staff said they sent the request to Berke's campaign staff, who also did not respond, and to the Chattanooga Police Department, which did.

Via email, police spokeswoman Elisa Myzal conceded the number of shootings is up, not down, but said Grohn's math is faulty. She said the department's "robust and comprehensive" anti-crime plan has reduced violent and property crime this year.

The VRI, one of Berke's signature programs, is aimed at reducing gun violence by gangs. Police, prosecutors and social service groups work together on the two-pronged initiative, which aims to crack down on those who shoot, while offering services such as job training and education to people willing to give up their guns.

According to Grohn, who drew his numbers from the city's Open Data Portal:

- The average number of monthly shootings increased from 8 in 2014 to 12.4 through September of this year, a 55 percent increase.

- Under Berke, 409 people have been shot and 89 people have died by homicide as of Sept. 30. Between March and June this year, 59 people were shot and 14 died.

- Shootings were up 45 percent from January-September this year compared to the same months in 2014.

Grohn said Berke's "incompetence and failed strategies are endangering our families' lives and the violence is spreading."

If elected, he said, "I will fight to bring much needed reform to our public safety efforts so that we can restore peace and safety to Chattanooga's neighborhoods."

The very first thing, he said, would be to "immediately suspend" all payments and contracts with VRI developer David Kennedy's National Network for Safe Communities, and to review contracts with current VRI service providers.

Grohn also promised to hold a "Community Peace Summit" and to seek solutions from the community and police, to "re-establish strong links" with the district attorney's office and the TBI, and to provide regular reports to the public.

In the police response, Myzal said the VRI is "just one tool for a very specific type of violence" and touted the department's close cooperation with agencies ranging from the Hamilton County District Attorney's Office and Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to social service and public housing partners.

She said the VRI's Tracking Log of Violent Crime counted "murders and criminal shootings," which may not be an identical metric to the city's data portal. She said Grohn's news release contained "a number of inaccuracies and misconceptions."

VRI figures show the average monthly shooting numbers rose from 9.5 per month in 2014 to 11.1 per month through September, a 17 percent increase, Myzal said. She said the CPD has seen more guns on the streets and expects illegal firearm seizures to be up 40 percent over last year.

Myzal also said the police department and Chief Fred Fletcher, not the mayor's office, decide on anti-crime strategies and contract for public safety services. Many of those decisions come from officers themselves, she said.

Fletcher, she added, "briefs the council and the public regularly on public safety numbers, and he and his officers work hand in hand with the already established Citizen Safety Coalition, led by Bishop [Kevin] Adams of Olivet Baptist Church and Dr. Charles Mitchell.

"The Chattanooga Police Department works everyday [sic], through a variety of initiatives, to keep crime down including budgeting for more officers than ever before, hiring a federal prosecutor to focus on crimes committed within the city limits, establishing a Victim's Services Unit and ensuring Community Policing and Focused Deterrence strategies department-wide. Because of these initiatives, and many more, we have seen results," she said, citing a 10.4 percent drop in overall violent crime and a 9.6 percent decrease in property crime this year over last.

Contact staff writer Judy Walton at jwalton@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6416.

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