Public Safety Coordinator Paul Smith spoke about the Violence Reduction Initiative to the Chattanooga Kiwanis Club, saying during the first "call in" of 13 young Chattanooga men with violent records, a mother of a shooting victim pleaded with them to stop the violence.
The men were called in as a part of Mayor Andy Berke's initiative to greatly reduce violent crime. They were asked to listen to police and community leaders speak.
These particular young men were selected after studying two years of data; it was discovered that the same names were connected to much of the crime and that only a few people were actually driving the violence.
Mr. Smith, a former principal of Howard High School, said at first some of the men thought it was a trick.
However, he said, "At the call in, the message that the young men heard was simply 'Stop the shooting.'"
He continued, "They heard from Brenda Johnson, a lady who had lost her child to this violence...She said, 'I don't know who killed my son, it could have been one of you, but I forgive whoever killed my son. Just don't let another mother go through this.'"
Mr. Smith said the room became "so quiet you could hear a pin drop."
He said the men were also shown a power point regarding the police investigation of the shooting death of another young man, Deontrey Southers. He was only 13 years old when he was killed by members of a gang shooting into his home with AK-47s. Mr. Smith said the gang members had intended to shoot his mother's boyfriend.
Police showed these young men that because of the data collected for the VRI, every member of the gang involved had been arrested. Mr. Smith said, "We took all of them off the street, all will be serving federal time."
Mr. Smith said, "We told them, 'We want to help you. We want you to stay safe, alive, and out of prison, but you have to stop the shooting.'" He said these men would be offered help in getting GEDs and job training.
At the end of the presentations, Mr. Smith said he had never seen anything like what happened next. He said, "All 13 men stayed to talk with the mayor and community folks."
He said, "Guys were saying one after the other, 'I didn't know the community even cared about me.'"
He also said all of the 13 had done "their best to walk away from what they were doing."
Founder and CEO of A Better Tomorrow, Inc. Richard Bennett also spoke, saying his organization was an outreach program for at-risk youth.
Mr. Bennett said, "Long after any administration leaves Chattanooga, A Better Tomorrow will still be here."
He said out of the 312 children and juveniles mentored through his program who were already repeat offenders, none of them went back through the system.
Mr. Bennett described his past as a former gang member himself, saying it was only starting a relationship with God that allowed him to change.
He said, "I don't mind giving my testimony because the pain of that testimony makes you who you are today."
He also pointed out that people are often scared of those different than them. He said, "We have people fearful of things they don't know...We're afraid of the perception of those people. But once you meet some of those people, you'll meet some awesome people."
He said many people saw clothing or hairstyles such as dreads and were immediately nervous, but that talking to people with "a different perception" could "change your life."
He said, "I'm looking for you all to hear us and get involved in any capacity God tells you to do."