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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Mayor Andy Berke speaks at the Chattanooga Police Services Center on Thursday, April 15, 2021.

Outgoing Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke attributes a drop in the city's gang violence under his tenure to the Violence Reduction Initiative, his flagship program, rolled out in March 2014 to fight gang violence in a new way.

The initiative, also known as the VRI, has been successfully implemented in cities across the country and consists of a two-pronged approach. It calls for the police, courts and social services to combine their firepower to convince gang members to stop shooting each other and get help — or face the full force of state and federal law.

Gang members receive the message by attending as a condition of their probation group meetings or "call-ins," during which law enforcement officials, victims, ex-gang members and community leaders try to reason with them.

Those who want the help can seek it from city social services providers who assist those who want out of that lifestyle through education and job training.

In Chattanooga, the approach has had mixed results.

Despite Berke and other city leaders promising a quick decline in shootings, it was a slow march to see any reduction in violence, something that stirred doubt in the community and with stakeholders and city leaders. And with the exception of 2018, which saw an unusually low number of shootings, gun violence in general has held steady in Chattanooga.

(READ MORE: The cost of gun violence to Chattanooga)

But the VRI isn't about gun violence, Berke told the Times Free Press in a recent interview. Since its inception, he said, the program has been about gang gun violence or violence by more loosely organized groups, as they are sometimes called.

"It's not designed to solve all problems," Berke said. "It's designed to focus on that single problem When I go through neighborhoods, I don't hear nearly as much that it is gang or group member-involved shootings as I did eight years ago. Those are both really positive signs."

CHATTANOOGA'S GANG CULTURE

Less than half of 1% of the city's population engages in gang activity.

Of the city's 183,000 population, roughly 845 people are considered by police as "validated" gang or group members or associates of different gangs, ranging from various subsets of the Bloods and Crips to the Aryan Nation and Latin Kings to Hells Angels.

Police use a point system to "validate" gang members. Tattoos, self-admittance, and associating with other gang members all have a different value, and a person needs 10 points to be considered validated. Anything less qualifies as an associate of the gang.

Police and other officials often use the word "group" rather than "gang" because "gang" connotes a highly organized operation, often with an illegal economic purpose. And most of the groups in Chattanooga are not economically stable. Their hierarchy is loosely organized and, at times, chaotic. In fact, many group members intermingle — something to which some officials attribute the difficulty in stopping the violence, while others believed it would help.

A "group member-involved" shooting doesn't necessarily mean the shooting itself is tied to gang activity. It just means either the suspect or the victim are gang members.

In order for a shooting to be gang-related, it has to be carried out for the purpose of gang-related activity. In Chattanooga, however, much of the violence is driven by personal vendettas, which can quickly come to a boiling point.

Since the VRI was implemented in 2014, group member-involved shootings in Chattanooga have fallen by 68% from a peak in 2016. It was in 2017 — three years after the VRI was rolled out — that the city started seeing a decline in shootings involving group members.

In the first two years after the initiative began, the city actually saw an increase in gun violence, according to Chattanooga Police Department data analyzed and maintained by the Times Free Press.

Between 2013 and 2016 group member-involved shootings made up no less than 63% of the city's shootings and reached a peak of 72% in 2015, a year in which efforts to suppress violent crime were hobbled when 11 of the 12 permanent members of the police department's Street Crimes Response Team requested transfers out of the unit over the course of 10 days.

The mass exodus was said at the time to be the result of a toxic environment between the team and then-police Chief Fred Fletcher's administration — a unified protest against the way the unit was asked to operate under the VRI, the Times Free Press reported previously.

In 2016, a months-long, bloody gang war sent several people including pregnant women and children to hospitals with gunshot wounds. It was a year in which the city saw more homicides than any other year since 2001.

By 2017, the percentage of group member-involved shootings was down to 57%. The following year, it fell to 37%. In 2019, 31%, and last year, despite a sharp increase in gun violence — a problem that plagued most of the country amid the COVID-19 pandemic — 21% of shootings involved a group member.

This year to date, 17% of the city's gun violence has involved a group member.

Exactly what led to that decline is unclear, as — despite the city pouring more than $1.5 million into the VRI — there has been no evaluation of the initiative.

Police, under Chief David Roddy, have since switched their strategy to what Roddy calls a three-pillar approach: community policing, intelligence-led policing and focused deterrence, a crime prevention strategy that targets "specific criminal behavior committed by a small number of chronic offenders, such as youth gang members or repeat violent offenders, who are vulnerable to sanctions and punishment," according to the federal National Institute of Justice.

The VRI also used focused deterrence, though differently.

Focused deterrence, as it is now implemented, means identifying an issue, such as an increase in violent crime or an increase in motor vehicle crashes, and then finding ways to address that issue, whether it be with increased patrols or traffic stops or building larger, stronger cases — often ones that can be prosecuted in federal court where sentences are harsher.

Under the VRI, police were asked to make arrests they normally wouldn't make, including for misdemeanor offenses. Prosecutors, in turn, were asked to fight for heavier-than-usual penalties in those cases, despite misdemeanor charges carrying lighter sentences that are often served on probation.

That's because judges need to keep dockets moving, jails are already packed with detainees and district attorneys have limited resources. So to alleviate an already stressed criminal justice system, prosecutors, defendants and judges often strike plea deals in which someone is given a lesser punishment in exchange for a guilty plea.

But the VRI called for police and prosecutors to break from that norm. It wouldn't work otherwise, city leaders warned.

Since the VRI began, many city and law enforcement leaders, frustrated with a lack of results, have disagreed on the program's effectiveness. And in March 2016, several key VRI leaders fought with one another about who was to blame for the initiative's lack of significant results.

In the program's early years, Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston was outspoken about his belief that the VRI crossed an ethical line by asking him to target particular defendants just because they were gang members. He has declined to speak on the matter in recent years.

In February 2016, the Times Free Press reported the vast majority of VRI offenders avoided long sentences. Of 263 gang members arrested between March 2014 and February 2016, seven received the maximum punishment and most were sentenced to probation, not jail time.

For Pinkston, seeking harsher-than-usual sentences for someone simply because they were in a gang could have been unconstitutional.

"We can't sentence someone or convict someone outside of the bounds of the law," he told WGOW-FM in November 2015. "That would violate someone's constitutional rights. It would violate our ethical obligation as prosecutors. And it would be wrong. We're not going to do that."

And while he acknowledged in February 2016 that prosecutors have the discretion to withhold or adjust plea offers and are able to ask a judge to impose the maximum sentence in misdemeanor cases, "that's not how it works in reality," he said at the time. "How it works in reality is, it's an evaluation of the quantity and quality of evidence in a particular case, the individual's background and the severity of the charge."

VRI BY THE NUMBERS

- Three hundred and fifteen gang members attended 15 call-ins and 10 juvenile information sessions.

- Police cracked down on violent offenders 25 times.

- Roughly 500 gang members were arrested as a result of those crackdowns.

- In all, roughly 1,000 people crossed paths with law enforcement either through arrest or personal contact to be given the "VRI message."

Source: Chattanooga Police Department

By April 2016, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals struck down two sections of state law that allowed for longer sentences for gang members, ruling that the gang enhancement statutes allow defendants to be punished for the activity of others and for crimes in which they were not involved.

That violates the due process clause of the 14th Amendment and is therefore unconstitutional, the court said.

Police and other city officials insisted they were not asking the district attorney to act unconstitutionally.

"Instead, through VRI we ask the DA's office to seek the higher end of the existing sentencing range because the defendant's gang has murdered someone or is the most violent group in town," then-police Chief Fred Fletcher said at the time of the appellate court ruling. "In other words, we ask the DA to push, as the prosecutor, for punishments closer to the maximum rather than the minimum."

It was a disagreement that didn't seem to reach a resolution. And by April of the following year, Fletcher announced his retirement.

He did not return a request to comment Friday on the successes or failures of the VRI program.

In 2016, Pinkston's critics pointed to New Orleans, where officials adopted a different version of the VRI.

Prosecutors there swept multiple gang members off the streets in a single racketeering indictment, the Times Free Press reported previously. To ensure the cases received maximum punishments, prosecutors increased what they offered in plea agreements or took their chances with a jury at trial.

Pinkston filed his own racketeering and racketeering conspiracy indictment in March 2018. It was a massive case with 55 defendants, all alleged to be Athens Park Bloods gang members.

The case, which was criticized by some for legal overreach, fell apart entirely by February 2020 because it failed to show a pattern of racketeering activity as defined by Tennessee law.

Tennessee's Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act is narrow by design, as one of the law's co-sponsors has historically been opposed to racketeering legislation because "it would hurt smaller people" rather than major players, the judge noted when dismissing the cases.

The social services wing of the VRI also was fraught with turmoil.

In June 2014, the city cut ties with A Better Tomorrow, one of the city's social service providers, after its director, Richard Bennett — the main contact for gang members seeking help — was arrested on marijuana charges that were later dropped.

The following month, the city chose Hope for the Inner City as Bennett's replacement.

Then in January 2015, funders began pulling support due to poor communication and planning on the city's part. And a Times Free Press review of documents showed job numbers and success stories could have been inflated. Still, the city renewed its contract with Hope for the Inner City.

In 2017, case management was the job of local provider Father to the Fatherless, or F2F, a training and mentoring program run by Hope for the Inner City.

By January 2018, the city council declined to renew its contract with F2F because city council members said they did not have enough data to show how the nonprofit had helped with providing services for the VRI.

The nonprofit's executive director pushed back, telling the Times Free Press it did provide city officials with a report submitted in November 2017 that stated the nonprofit found that gang members were reluctant to seek help. Out of 15 VRI participants who signed up for services from F2F, only one showed up and received help from the nonprofit.

Today, the city council has still not contracted a social services provider. Services such as education and job referrals or help with housing and transportation are being handled by the city's public safety coordinator, Troy Rogers, and "navigators" hired after the Berke administration redirected the unspent funds — that would have gone to a social service provider — to help connect those seeking help, not just through the VRI, with the proper resources.

As part of Rogers' job — and outside of it, too — he has taken on the task of providing help and mentorship to men and women of all ages who are both at risk of falling into the criminal justice system and those who are working to get out. Those who've turned their lives around have said it's about changing their mindsets.

And with gang gun violence falling and community-police relationships improving as evidenced by arrests in homicides increasing to the 70% to 80% range in recent years — with the exception of last year ,which saw investigations hampered by the coronavirus pandemic — Berke said he counts that as a success.

Since the beginning, he said, his vision for the VRI was "to change the way that we police so that we were more focused on specific individuals who are perpetrating harm" rather than saturating streets and communities where crimes happened because that is "exactly the kind of model that causes problems between community and police," he said.

"Over the last year, we've seen a nationwide discussion about distrust between communities and police departments," Berke said. "While certainly we saw people speaking out here as well, I think one of the reasons that we had a little bit of a different discussion in Chattanooga is because we changed our model, you know, seven years ago to be much more about relationships within the community rather than invading or saturating the community.

"Nobody wants to feel like they're being invaded, especially after you've already suffered the trauma of a violent incident somewhere on your street. Almost everybody in Chattanooga, no matter what neighborhood they live in, obeys the law.

"So we should really think about, not a neighborhood or a community causing violence, but about these few individuals who are causing harm to the people [living in those neighborhoods] who are really victims."

Berke said his administration asked police to "do their job in a different way from what they did 10 years ago, and I think that has been good for the department and good for the city.

"While I'm sure that there are some individuals who may prefer a different style, the vast majority of our officers have embraced the idea that being part of our community makes us and them safer. And I think that's been a source of strength for Chattanooga."

And to his critics, Berke said, "any time that you try to change the overall way that things are done, you're going to see some pushback."

"I always was going to judge the success, not by what people said, but by whether we were able to reduce the numbers," he added. "The numbers are significantly down — in the neighborhood of 60-70%. As I leave office, that's what I'm going to remember."

Contact Rosana Hughes at 423-757-6327, rhughes@timesfreepress.com or follow her on Twitter @HughesRosana.

GUN VIOLENCE BY THE NUMBERS

2013: 111 shootings, 74 of which are known to be GMI*

2014: 109 shootings, 69 of which are known to be GMI

2015: 118 shootings, 85 of which are known to be GMI

2016: 130 shootings, 90 of which are known to be GMI

2017: 115 shootings, 65 of which are known to be GMI

2018: 98 shootings, 36 of which are known to be GMI

2019: 106 shootings, 33 of which are known to be GMI

2020: 141 shootings, 29 of which are known to be GMI

*GMI stands for group-member involved.

Numbers are based on the number of shooting incidents that are determined to be criminal in nature. One incident may have multiple victims.

Source: Chattanooga Police Department data analyzed by the Times Free Press.

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