published Sunday, April 7th, 2013

Andy Berke eyes new way to take on crime in Chattanooga


Chattanooga Police Chief Bobby Dodd speaks at a news conference. Standing with the chief are, from left, Officer Nathan Hartwig and Assistant Chief Kirk Eidson.
Chattanooga Police Chief Bobby Dodd speaks at a news conference. Standing with the chief are, from left, Officer Nathan Hartwig and Assistant Chief Kirk Eidson.
Photo by John Rawlston /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
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    Andy Berke
    Photo by Jake Daniels.
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HIGH POINT, N.C.

Population: About 100,000

Racial makeup: 60.5 percent white, 31.8 percent black

Education: Just over 77 percent of residents have graduated from high school.

Livelihood: The city has a reputation as a furniture manufacturing hub.

AT A GLANCE

Crime measures that Mayor-elect Andy Berke wants to implement:

Ceasefire: Targets gang members. Police and federal authorities target one gang and offer services by working with nonprofits and social service agencies in the community. Offenders are offered a chance to change. If gang members continue to commit violent crimes, they are prosecuted.

High Point Initiative: This is a drug market intervention program patterned after Ceasefire. The program aims to reduce violence by cracking down on drug dealers.

Lethality Assessment Program: To reduce violence against domestic violence victims, Berke wants to implement this program that was put in place in Maryland. The scale is used by social service agencies and police officers to assess the risk to domestic violence victims. Eleven questions determine a victim's risk of death. Intervention follows as needed.

One of the components of Mayor-elect Andy Berke's plan to combat crime in Chattanooga will be unlike anything police here have done before.

And Police Chief Bobby Dodd says it could be rolled out within a few weeks.

The drug market initiative program, sometimes called the "High Point Initiative" for the city in North Carolina where it was first employed nearly a decade ago, calls for reducing violence by cracking down on drug dealers.

The plan calls for targeting drug dealers in a specified neighborhood. The worst offenders are prosecuted. The others are asked to come to the table along with a loved one. They are shown the evidence against them and given a choice: Go straight with the help of police and social service agencies, get out of town or go to prison on federal charges. Translation: for a long time.

The program has since been implemented in more than a dozen cities nationwide, and the results sound almost too good to be true.

• In Nashville's McFerrin Park neighborhood, illegal drug possession incidents were cut in half in monthly offenses when examined over a five-year period.

• Rockford, Ill., saw a 14 percent decline in violent crimes on average when compared to the previous year. Overall crime also declined.

• And in High Point, violence plummeted in the notorious West End area, where residents were so afraid that they didn't want to take their kids outside. From the time the initiative took hold in 2004, the area went eight years without a killing and is "much safer than it was five years ago," according to High Point Police Chief Marty Sumner.

The change was palpable in West End, and it seemed to happen so fast, Sumner said.

"The drug market shut down overnight, and we didn't anticipate that," he said.

Nicholas Corsaro, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Cincinnati, has evaluated four of the cities that implemented the program -- Nashville, Rockford and Peoria, Ill., and High Point. In only one case was there no change in crime.

A lack of community buy-in and support prevented Peoria from making the needed changes, Corsaro said.

"Peoria ... followed the recipe, but they didn't use good ingredients," he said.

Success also depends on whether most of the neighborhood's violence is the direct result of drug dealing, he said.

Berke says he hopes to see the High Point Initiative and an anti-gang program called Ceasefire implemented in Chattanooga once he takes office April 15.

"Over the last couple of decades we've seen innovations around our country to reduce crime," Berke said in an interview. "We should be researching any method that helps us get there."

•••

Before the program was put in place in High Point, homicides were often in the double digits each year.

In 2004, David Kennedy, director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, advised the High Point Police Department to go after the drug market as a way to curtail the violence.

The idea was based on the successful Ceasefire program developed by Kennedy in Boston, which went after gang members. Police and federal authorities would target one gang and offer services by working with nonprofits and social service agencies in the community.

Offenders would be offered a chance to change. If gang members continued to commit violent crimes, then they were prosecuted.

Kennedy traveled to High Point to help put the new program in motion.

Investigators began by working to build drug cases against more than a dozen West End drug dealers.

Officers built charges against the dealers using audio and video evidence captured from drug houses.

Four were immediately prosecuted. The remaining nine were called in. The police chief sent letters to the dealers telling them to come to a meeting and to bring someone they care about. They were promised they would not be arrested.

At the meeting in High Point, representatives of probation and social service agencies were present. The audio and video were played for the dealers. They were told by police and state and federal prosecutors that if they continued to deal drugs, they would be charged. They had just seen evidence from their case that would lead to their conviction.

This was their chance to change. The neighborhood was going to change for the better. They could be a part of that or get out.

"Their names were out there and they were notorious in that neighborhood," said Sumner.

The dealers got the message. Those who didn't go to jail tried to take advantage of the help to move on to something else.

"Everybody gets hung up about those guys," Sumner said when discussing the dealers. "It didn't matter to us if they're successful or not. If they get locked up, the neighborhood wins.

"Really, for us, it was more important for us to allow a lady to sit on her front porch. ... If they do change, there's a success story."

Either way, the effort bought the neighborhood time to clean up and helped police officers win over the residents.

In a research paper, Kennedy noted:

"Most of the dealers in the initial West End site, for example, did not make their way through to getting and keeping good jobs. The most successful approach seems to involve ex-offender mentors working with the dealers," Kennedy wrote.

•••

It took weeks to build trust with community residents, Sumner noted.

"They were a little apprehensive," he said.

Yet four years after the program started, West End recorded a 57 percent decrease in violent crime and a 25 percent decrease in drug-related crimes.

"The trust we gained with the community was worth more than the crime reductions because we can't effectively police the neighborhood if they don't trust us," said Sumner, who was instrumental in starting the program when he was a major at the department.

There was no extra cost to implement the program, Sumner said, and it was rolled out in other neighborhoods.

It was unclear if the changes would last, yet Sumner said West End isn't the only area that's safer today.

In the neighborhoods where the program has been used, "None of them have collapsed to where they were, and we've been able to sustain it," Sumner said.

University studies, including one in Nashville, showed that crime did not spread to other neighborhoods.

But there were some obstacles in rolling out the program. Telling investigators to make cases and not make arrests goes against what officers are trained to do.

"I probably wouldn't believe it if I read it," Sumner said. "The biggest obstacle we had was you [police officers] wouldn't believe it would work."

•••

Traditional policing in low-income, crime-ridden neighborhoods normally involves a high volume of traffic stops and field interviews where officers try to make contact with as many people as possible. To officers, they're doing their best to make contact with the neighborhood that seems to need their attention the most. They want to make sure people are safe.

In February, Chattanooga police flooded the East Lake area with as many as 60 officers at certain times to try to get a handle on the neighborhood. Prostitutes were run off from street corners. Loiterers were told to move along. Warrants were served. A higher presence of officers deterred shootings in February. There were only three.

However, sometimes people without records or ones with minor offenses can get caught in that widely cast net, and that can breed resentment between residents and police.

It sometimes can do more harm than good, Kennedy told the police in High Point. This program reasoned with drug dealers and gave them concrete consequences.

"No, that's not crazy. That makes perfect sense," said Sumner, who recalled the meeting with Kennedy in 2003. "We just didn't think about it that way, but most people didn't believe it was possible."

•••

Berke brought Kennedy to Chattanooga in 2008 to speak on a panel about crime.

Afterward, Berke sponsored a state bill that would have allocated funding for drug market initiatives in metro cities across the state. The bill never gained support.

Berke said in a recent interview that crime is the issue he hears the most about. That was true when he ran for mayor and it was true when he ran for state senator.

"Neighborhood leaders and community members want to be part of the solution," he said. "High Point, Ceasefire and other community policing methods utilize our citizenry in the most effective way."

Dodd said he believes Kennedy's programs would be successful in Chattanooga.

"In my opinion, Chattanooga's greatest challenges will be changing the way everyone involved looks at the problem, buys into solving the problems, and supports the positive changes going forward," Dodd said. "The proof is in the results, and I believe the program could make great changes to Chattanooga."

Looking back at the 45-day saturation in East Lake, Dodd says he would have done things differently knowing what he does now.

He would have brought in the most violent offenders to say it stops today. Social services would be present to offer help. Federal prosecutors would be ready.

Dodd and Sumner spoke last week by phone, and Dodd said he plans to visit High Point "to get a better grasp of how to fully implement the program here in Chattanooga."

Yet it remains to be seen whether Dodd will be the one to put the program in motion.

Berke has not indicated whether he will keep Dodd on as police chief.

And Berke is dismantling the anti-gang program created under Mayor Ron Littlefield. Boyd Patterson, co-coordinator of the city's Gang Task Force, said he was told Friday by incoming mayoral chief of staff Travis McDonough that the task force will be discontinued.

Contact staff writer Beth Burger at bburger@times freepress.com or 423-757-6406. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/abburger.

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