Between Oct. 20-27, ten people were shot in a string of violent crimes across Chattanooga, ultimately resulting in three deaths. Police have indicated that the majority of these shootings are the result of ongoing gang conflicts in Chattanooga.
The outburst of violence was so unexpected that on Thursday, Oct. 30, local gang members met with Mayor Berke at City Hall and held a public forum afterward to discuss ways to decrease “the nonsense violence” between participating gangs. Norman Williams, a known gang member and the meeting’s organizer, estimates that there are between 1,100 and 1,300 gang members in Chattanooga. Less than forty of them came to the meeting. However, those who did were able to speak with local attorneys and pastors, and were given information about Mayor Berke’s Violence Reduction Initiative, which offers jobs and opportunities for those wanting to leave the gangs.
The Violence Reduction Initiative, or VRI, has been associated with the Mayor since his election in March 2013, and began in full force in March of this year. The plan targets known violent gang members and drug dealers, and provides counseling, education, and in some cases, a safe escape from danger. Often, these perpetrators are also given an arrest threat and shown the evidence compiled against them. These meetings take place confidentially, either one-on-one or in groups, and the identities of the perpetrators are protected.
VRI was designed by David Kennedy, who hails from New York and is the director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The plan is modeled after Kennedy’s other successful programs in cities such as High Point, N.C., Nashville, Tenn., and Baltimore, Md. The program is facilitated by Hope for the Inner City, located on Roanoke Avenue, which runs social services and a 24-hour hotline.
Chattanooga’s most recent series of shootings has led to closer public scrutiny about the VRI’s effectiveness. The city’s total shootings for this 2014, currently standing at 94, are higher than the 86 recorded last year, which contradicts the program’s success in other cities. Homicides are up as well, from seventeen to twenty-five. However, police leaders and city administration maintain that the VRI is working, as previously violent gang members have taken advantage of their new opportunities to get out of the gangs.
“…When I sit in front of people and see the anecdotal, the qualitative changes that show me it is working,” said Chief of Police Fred Fletcher, “then I believe it’s working.”
By the numbers, about 60 gang members have found jobs since March, and there have been fewer non-lethal shootings directly related to gang conflict. Ninety gang members have been imprisoned since the Violence Reduction Initiative began.
To respond to the controversy, police have begun planning ways to expand the initiative to criminals who are not in gangs. Recognizing the differences between cities, Kennedy and other key strategists, such as Lt. Todd Royval from the city police, propose that it is simply a matter of refocusing their attention to the non-gang demographic, which they believe may be committing the rest of Chattanooga’s major crimes.
Unfortunately, because of these contradictory and confusing claims about the source of the problem, as well as the mixed results from the last six months, it may take the next year to properly assess the administration’s efforts to reduce crime in Chattanooga.