Berke: Chattanooga shootings in the crosshairs: 'We can' change the equation

Berke: Chattanooga shootings in the crosshairs: 'We can' change the equation

January 12th, 2014 by By Andy Berke in Opinion Columns

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke speaks to the media from the U.S. Attorneys Office in Chattanooga in this Nov. 4, 2013, file photo.

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke speaks to the media...

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

'Gunshot wound to neck - minor injury; Victim black male; Showed up at Memorial Hospital. Name given believed to be false ... No shots-fired calls in area, no crime scene located."

- Text to Andy Berke

The text above is but one I have received since I've been mayor, but it could serve as a template for many others. It's a main reason I decided to run for this office; and these texts, and stories from countless people across our city, have led me to an inescapable conclusion: We must do something about the shootings.

I heard it on the campaign trail, and it has been repeated again and again since I took office nine months ago. Shootings affect more than just the people involved. They make people feel less safe in their homes; businesses worry their customers won't show up; and, worst of all, shootings tend to result in more shootings.

That's because retaliation is the main impetus behind gun violence in our community. In Chattanooga, as in every city, gun violence is concentrated among a small number of extremely active groups -- "gangs," drug crews, "sets," and the like. Across cities, up to three-quarters of all homicide is connected with group members representing less than half a percent of the population. The thinking is not complicated. You shot at me and my group, so my group and I are going to shoot at you and your group. And the cycle keeps going. It is concentrated among young black men, who in some neighborhoods are at terrible risk for being shot, killed, and going to prison.

We must change that equation.

Fortunately, we can. A few months ago, we launched the Chattanooga Violence Reduction Initiative (VRI) modeled after the ceasefire concepts adopted around the country. Here's how it works. First, we map out the different groups around the city. Second, we show people we take action when shootings occur. Third, we communicate with them clearly and effectively: If a shooting occurs, law enforcement will focus in on you and your group for any and all crimes committed -- drugs, warrants, open cases, probation and parole violations, anything -- no matter which person pulls the trigger. And fourth, we offer services like vocational support and alcohol and drug rehabilitation to those who are willing to put down their weapons.

You also change the discussion. There are divides between law enforcement and the community, and it frequently boils down to race. The police have to be willing to see the community's perspective, and the neighborhoods have to understand law enforcement's desire to improve their streets. Once that conversation begins, the group members can hear a powerful voice -- the unified, moral voice of a community who wants violence to stop.

As this system has operated around the country, it has become apparent all the steps are necessary. The city must show its resolve so groups know it means business. Once that occurs, you can let the groups know their shootings will no longer be tolerated. At the same time, you open every door possible for those who want to change their lives. The goal is not to keep arresting, but to keep Chattanooga's young black men -- and everybody else -- alive, out of prison, and with a decent chance at a good and successful life.

When done right, it works. In Boston, the youth homicide rate declined by 60 percent. Cincinnati reduced its group-related murders by 41 percent. Chicago and New Orleans, traditionally amongst the most violent cities in the country, both saw historic drops last year after adopting the approach.

Here, we are in the middle of adopting this system, combining it with other policies like increasing the size of the police force, closing down event halls, and greater coordination between federal, state and local officials.

We saw progress at the end of last year. I took office in the middle of April. In the first 8 months of the year, we averaged 11.875 shootings a month. The last four months those numbers went down to seven, a 41 percent drop. We had 17 murders in our first 8 months of 2013, while we had only two in the last four, neither of which was group related.

In those same last four months, we saw 359 children participate in our new reading program, an opportunity that exists as we transform our recreation centers into Youth and Family Development Centers. I spoke a few weeks ago with an impressive group of young men in our recently initiated CAP program, mentoring teenagers on the life skills they will need to be successful in the long run.

Yet we must do something about the shootings today. That's why VRI is on track. While four months of improved numbers is a good sign, we must replicate success again and again, being diligent in communicating the consequences of gunfire and placing opportunities in front of those who want to leave a life of violence behind.

I hate every text, every phone call informing me a shot has been fired in Chattanooga -- and I am committed to changing it. The foundation of a better city is built on safety. The Chattanooga VRI is an important building block.

About the writer: Andy Berke is mayor of Chattanooga.