published Sunday, February 2nd, 2014

Chattanooga public safety chief pitches anti-crime initiative to Glenwood neighborhood leaders

Chattanooga public safety coordinator Paul Smith is meeting with neighborhood groups around the city to explain Mayor Andy Berke's Violence Reduction Initiative. which will soon be launched.
Chattanooga public safety coordinator Paul Smith is meeting with neighborhood groups around the city to explain Mayor Andy Berke's Violence Reduction Initiative. which will soon be launched.
Photo by Maura Friedman.

Paul Smith spent six years as principal at the Howard School winning over the hearts of inner-city youth.

On Saturday, he worked to persuade Glenwood neighborhood leaders to support the Chattanooga Violence Reduction Initiative. The initiative will be rolled out in the next couple of months. Smith, the city's public safety coordinator, has met with two city neighborhood associations about the program. He has 15 to go.

His audience Saturday was a diverse group of community residents -- blacks, whites, clergymen, young and retired -- assigned to watch over blocks in the Glenwood neighborhood.

"This is something tried and true, and there's data behind what we're doing," Smith said.

Independent studies show that where initiatives based on expert David Kennedy's anti-crime programs have been launched, most cities experience reductions in crime.

Violence dropped in a neighborhood in High Point, N.C., where Kennedy, a professor at John Jay School of Criminal Justice in New York, first tested the program. From the time the initiative took hold in 2004, the area went eight years without a killing, according to High Point police.

In Rockford, Ill., violent crime fell 14 percent in one year a year after the program was launched.

In 2013, Chattanooga had 19 homicides and at least 122 shootings with 139 victims. Police and city leaders are hopeful those numbers will go down. Mayor Andy Berke said his top priority is to stop the shootings.

The program targets violent offenders. Offenders are invited to a "call-in" where they bring a loved one. They meet with law enforcement and hear about evidence that could be used against them. They hear about potentially lengthy sentences they could face. Then they are offered an opportunity if they put down the guns. Community organizations with resources are there, too. The message to offenders is to do something positive with their lives. Go to drug rehab. Get counseling. Learn life skills. Get an education. Find a job and be successful.

There are resources to make those things happen, Smith said.

When Smith was principal at Howard, he watched as some students fell victim to violence.

Lamunta Williams, 16, was found shot to death in an abandoned house just a couple of blocks from Howard during a school day last year.

"I thought, 'If I ever have an opportunity to do more, I will,'" Smith said.

He also met teens who police say are responsible for violence.

When Smith worked at Orchard Knob Middle School he encountered 12-year-old Jumoke Johnson, who was causing disruptions at school.

"I thought, this is a brilliant young man," Smith said. He had Johnson take an IQ test, on which the young student scored 133.

But Johnson's father, a Crips gang member took his young son with him as he made drug deals before going to prison in connection with a murder, Smith said.

Despite interventions and support that helped Johnson graduate from Brainerd High School and get into college, the teen who had bounced from foster homes and detention centers fell back into trouble.

"He ended up being one of the main driving forces behind the shootings. ... That truly breaks my heart," Smith said.

Johnson, now 20, was among 32 men rounded up in November by federal authorities. He's looking at serving a minimum of 15 years, Smith said.

Donald Sanderford, Johnson's second cousin, is one of the Glenwood block leaders.

Sanderford asked what makes this program so much different than others that have sprouted and then withered. How do you reach a child like Johnson? Who's to say this program will work or even last?

"I think people are going to be skeptical in the beginning," said Chattanooga Police Lt. Todd Royval, who attended the meeting. "We've tried other things. We thought we were helping. Let us try it. Please help us to do this. It gets ... really positive results. It's not a black issue. It's not a white issue. It's a crime issue."

Everlena Holmes, coordinator of Glenwood block leaders, offered support.

"Thank you for sharing your plan," she said. "We are ready to help."

If the violence reduction is successful, the city and future administrations will continue use it, Royval said.

"Nobody is bigger than a cause," said Sanderford, who after the meeting said he also plans to support the initiative. "This is a major cause."

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

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