Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke held a meeting Wednesday morning to discuss with community members and stakeholders progress made by his Violence Reduction Initiative.
Mayor Berke describes the VRI as a “targeted strategy to decrease violence in the region.” The program was based on principles from the National Network of Safe Communities that have been implemented in other cities, including Boston and Chicago. He said using these principles has resulted in a reduction in violence in these areas.
These principles include narrowing the focus to a problem such as homicide or gun violence, finding the people who are driving the problem, and then creating a channel of communication between the offenders, law enforcement, and the community. Mayor Berke said, “These principles work; that’s why we’re employing them.”
Back in October, the Chattanooga City Council voted to hire nationally renowned criminologist and co-chair of the NNSC David Kennedy to help tailor the plan specifically for Chattanooga. Mr. Kennedy is currently a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City as well as the director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control.
The tailoring and adjustment process is ongoing; last month, crime data analysts came to Chattanooga to perform “crime mapping.” This allows city authorities to see where violent crime is the most concentrated and to pinpoint the networks of people involved.
After Mayor Berke’s presentation, Professor Kennedy spoke to reporters through a conference call.
He said, “My interest is not as much crime as it is communities.” He explained that while many communities all over the country need work in terms of economic development and education, that will never happen if people “are scared to go outside.”
He said that his plans were first tried out in Boston in the mid-1990s. He said, “What we learned in Boston was a really shocking proportion of homicide was driven by a small number of people operating in gangs or groups.”
According to his research and experience, these groups “aren’t what people think of as gangs most of the time.” He said typically, these groups are “pretty disorganized” and “mostly hurt one another.” On average, he said group members have 10 or more prior felony convictions.
Professor Kennedy told reporters that he has never seen a city successfully get rid of these groups. Therefore, he focuses on changing their behavior instead. In his plan, this is accomplished through working with community leaders. Professor Kennedy said the message of the community to members of violent groups was that “the community rejects the violence and needs it to stop.”
He said, “Cities usually begin this process with a demonstration arrest.” In Chattanooga, 32 men were recently arrested as part of the initiative. He said this “shows what will happen so that people don’t want to touch that hot stove.” He suggested that after a roundup like that, others involved in violent crime “may be a great deal more interested in making a change.”
For those who did want to change their lives, he emphasized the outreach and support part of his plan. He said people who’ve been involved in violence needed “new friends, new community, and ways to let go of the trauma, even clinical PTSD that many of them deal with.” He said, “If you are a group member and you want out, the city has put together a special support system for you.”