January 30, 2014

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Digging into the Violence Reduction Initiative

The Chattanooga Violence Reduction Initiative has the following parameters, according to materials distributed by the mayor’s office: 

1. A narrow focus on a particular problem, such as homicide, gun violence, drug markets, domestic violence, etc. 

2. A narrow focus on the relatively small number of offenders driving problem 

3. Direct communication to those offenders 

4. Prior notice of a new and more meaningful legal response for continued offending 

5. A clear community stand against the offending behavior 

6. Outreach and support, including offers to help those offenders who want it 

7. Sustained, careful follow-through 

The Violence Reduction Initiative, a key component of Mayor Andy Berke’s administration, has generated both praise and controversy since its introduction. The Pulse asked Mayor Berke five questions about the VRI and its implementation.

The Pulse: The VRI program is very specific, targeting violent crime in Chattanooga as it currently exists, yet, for example, a letter to the editor today suggests we must start earlier, before the teen years, with outreach and support. What’s your reaction to that?

Mayor Andy Berke: The goal of the VRI is specifically to reduce violent crime. The outreach and support it includes involves people who are currently involved in the world of violence. If you are willing to leave that life, there are vocational training, alcohol and drug counseling and educational opportunities available. 

That doesn’t mean we are doing nothing to address the long-term goals. For example, the Youth & Family Development Department is offering reading and mentoring programs to young people. We know we must address alleviating poverty and helping people achieve.

TP: From your point of view, who are the people who do not support the effort and why don’t they?

MAB: There are people who are skeptical of law enforcement agencies, and there are people who want heavier law enforcement. In the job of mayor, I realize not everyone was going to say, “I believe in this 100 percent.” But, we have buy-in from significant portions of the community, social services, the faith-based community. Most importantly, law enforcement has aggressively moved to a more targeted approach. [Former Police Chief] Bobby Dodd bought into the concept, and [other key officers] are enthusiastic about the way it can work. Whoever becomes the new chief will clearly need to support the effort as well.

TP: There has been a lot of discussion about the lack of trust in the police within some neighborhoods. Police departments are known to seesaw back and forth between adopting “community policing” and a more “military-style” approach. How does the VRI approach this?

MAB: An individual community is not “bad.” There aren’t whole neighborhoods that are violent. Most violence is caused by a small number of people in a few places. You don’t punish the community, you go after the offenders. You go out and find each and every person who is committed to violence.

TP: But getting a community to trust the police after decades of mistrust isn’t easy, wouldn’t you agree?

MAB: It’s true that each and every initiative taps into everyone’s lifetime of perceptions. You cannot change attitudes overnight.

TP: You and your staff have met with a long list of community groups to generate support for the VRI. Many of these groups have similar missions and goals. How can they be convinced to pool resources and work together to help accomplish the VRI’s goals?

MAB: We are focused on partners who are effective. We want to be involved with people who can get the job done, service providers of whom we can say, “Here are people who can help.”


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