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Like Fayetteville, Chattanooga's new leaders take aim at crime

Posted December 22, 2013

The Fayetteville Observer
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— Not far from Chattanooga's vibrant downtown, gangs and gun violence fester in the streets.

For years, Chattanooga has had one of the highest violent crime rates in the country. Last year, its rate stood at 863 violent crimes per 100,000 residents - 34 percent higher than Fayetteville's.

But like Fayetteville, Chattanooga has a new mayor and new City Council members who say they are committed to stopping the violence.

Andy Berke, a former state senator, moved quickly after winning Chattanooga's mayoral election by a landslide and taking office in April.

Berke, who operates under a "strong mayor" form of government, cleaned house. He replaced every city department head except the police chief, Bobby Dodd, who resigned this month along with most of his command staff. Police Investigator Josh May said the resignations were largely the result of a plan to reduce pension benefits.

In his new operating budget, Berke designated money for more police and a special prosecutor to pursue federal cases against the most violent criminals. He created a new position – public safety coordinator – and named Paul Smith, former principal of Chattanooga's only inner-city high school, to fill it.

In October, the Chattanooga City Council agreed to spend $240,000 to hire David Kennedy, a criminologist behind a successful crime-fighting initiative that has been used in High Point for years.

Berke first met Kennedy in 2008. Berke, who was in the legislature at the time, had invited Kennedy to be the keynote speaker of a fall policy conference. Berke said he knew little about Kennedy, but friends had recommended him.

When Kennedy walked to the lectern, his long hair flowing, Berke felt he had made "a grave mistake."

"Then he proceeded to blow the room away," Berke said.

Berke said he was so impressed that he tried to get the legislature to support a bill to bring Kennedy's model to Tennessee's four largest cities, including Chattanooga. The bill failed to gain traction.

As Chattanooga's mayor, Berke did not meet any such resistance. On Oct. 15, the council approved hiring Kennedy by a 9-0 vote. It also funded Berke's request to spend $100,000 to review the Police Department's management.

A week later, a dozen police, city officials and community leaders headed to John Jay College of Criminal Justice for a two-day training session on what to expect from Kennedy's methods and how to implement them.

The Chattanooga group was not alone, said Smith, the city's public safety coordinator. It was joined by officials from Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, New York and elsewhere.

In November, analysts from John Jay College were in Chattanooga, where they helped police and others start the work of identifying the city's most violent criminals and map its most violent areas.

By early next year, Berke said, he hopes to have established the social services arm of the initiative and to begin call-ins where criminals are offered the choice to straighten out their lives or face almost certain arrest and punishment.

Chattanooga has made big strides in recent years to revitalize its downtown and to attract new industry. A Volkswagen assembly plant began operating in the city in 2011, promising to provide 2,000 jobs.

But Berke and others worry that violence will curtail Chattanooga's economic development efforts.

"Stop the shootings is the main goal," Berke said. "If we can reduce those numbers to a significant degree, it will help our economic development and our quality of life."

It is not clear how the resignations of Dodd, Chattanooga's police chief, and his command staff will affect the city's efforts to implement the High Point model.

Chattanooga has faced other recent problems that could hurt efforts to build the community engagement so essential to the success of the High Point program.

Last month, the Chattanooga Times Free Press printed on its front page the pictures of 32 men charged in a drug operation. Dodd, then the chief, reportedly called the men the "worst of the worst." All 32 are black.

The pictures and the accompanying story led to protest among some black residents.

Berke and other city leaders say they understand the sensitivity of the issue. But they say most violent crime in Chattanooga happens in black communities and involves black people.

Of the 122 shooting victims in Chattanooga from Jan. 1 through Nov. 21 of this year, 114 were black, six were white and two were Hispanic, according to figures provided by police. Of the 63 known suspects, only one was white.

Berke said the intent of the crime initiatives is not to make more arrests.

"I don't want people going to jail," he said. "I want the shootings to stop."

Staff writer Greg Barnes can be reached at barnesg@fayobserver.com or 486-3525.

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