published Sunday, February 9th, 2014

Doubt and trust: Chattanooga's anti-violence initiative aims to break culture of silence

Two men were fatally gunned down in different areas of Chattanooga on Feb. 1.

In Hixson, a gunman told Andrew Biro he would be killed if he told anyone he saw Robert McClure getting shot in the head at point-blank range.

Biro called police. They made an arrest the same day.

"The people who knew who shot and killed the guy in Hixson called the police immediately. 'I know he did it. I saw him do it,'" Chattanooga Police Department Lt. Todd Royval said.

In Alton Park, Charles Jones was gunned down by several men on West 41st Street, an area bordered by homes. No one said a word.

That's true of the other shootings in the city's Southside that police say may be linked to a gang feud between the Athens Park Bloods and Bounty Hunter Bloods. One such shooting on Jan. 21 took the life of 13-year-old Deontrey Southers, who was killed in the doorway of his home.

"People tell us nothing," Royval said.

Royval is hoping that changes. In the next couple of months, as a new anti-crime initiative that singles out violent offenders goes live in March, trust between residents and police could increase. Residents will see violent offenders get locked up, or watch some of them change their lives for the better.

The Chattanooga Violence Reduction Initiative is modeled after the High Point Drug Market Intervention program created by David Kennedy, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

The police saturations that targeted entire communities are a thing of the past, Royval said.

When Deontrey was killed, police went after gang members who might retaliate. They picked individuals up on unrelated charges. The community wasn't inundated with droves of marked patrol cars stopping residents and shaking them down.

"We know who the bad guys are. We know that our problem is not 300 gang members that are causing all of the crime in the city. We know that it's down to less than 50, I would say," Royval said.

When the initiative starts, investigators will go with the police chief and someone from a nonprofit organization who can help with resources to make changes. They will sit down with people they believe are likely to commit crimes. Offenders will be confronted with their criminal histories. They will learn how easy it is to pick up a federal charge, and they will be told they are being watched.

They are put on notice. Put down the guns. Take advantage of resources offered. Improve life for yourself and your family. Or keep the guns and face lengthy prison sentences.

"We're not telling you how bad you are. We're going to tell you how we can help you change this into a positive," Royval said.

With the help from organizations, the hope is to heal communities. With that healing, perhaps more people will step forward.

Paul Smith, Chattanooga's public safety coordinator, said people have to take ownership of their communities.

"Always consider what happened to your neighbor could happen to you. If you have the ability to stop someone who is walking around killing people just by saying, 'His name is ...' you have a responsibility to do that," he said.

Gerald Webb, a defense attorney who grew up in Eastdale, said he is hopeful the initiative will work. However, he has some doubts.

"With everything in me, I hope it works. I just don't know how confident I am in any program that does not directly touch the root of the problem that causes violence in the communities," he said.

The problems that plague the communities are complex, he said.

"Until more social economic issues get addressed; until education gets addressed; until young men growing up with absent fathers get addressed; until young men learn the proper definition of manhood, in my opinion, you will continue to have violent crime and murders that occur in these neighborhoods and throughout the city," Webb said.

The gang feud in Alton Park supposedly began over a woman who dated members of different gangs. Someone felt disrespected. Someone fired shots. Someone retaliated. The cycle continues now. And no one talks to police.

Webb represents many gang members who face criminal charges. He offers counsel and advice that reaches beyond the courtroom.

"Every human emotion is temporary. Don't ever allow some temporary emotion to put you in a permanent situation," he tells them. "It's maturity to make these decisions on how you want to live your life. You have to know there is something better and you have a realistic chance of getting there. Not that you're promised to get there -- but you have a shot."

Smith and Royval promise to offer that opportunity.

"We have to be able to offer hope and then deliver what we say we're going to offer. Every single time in every single case," Smith said.

"And that's how it's going to be," Royval said.

Contact staff writer Beth Burger at bburger@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-64606. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/abburger.

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