published Sunday, January 12th, 2014

Berke: Chattanooga shootings in the crosshairs: 'We can' change the equation

By Andy Berke
  • photo
    Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke speaks to the media from the U.S. Attorneys Office in Chattanooga in this Nov. 4, 2013, file photo.
    Photo by Tim Barber /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

'Gunshot wound to neck — minor injury; Victim black male; Showed up at Memorial Hospital. Name given believed to be false ... No shots-fired calls in area, no crime scene located."

— Text to Andy Berke

The text above is but one I have received since I've been mayor, but it could serve as a template for many others. It's a main reason I decided to run for this office; and these texts, and stories from countless people across our city, have led me to an inescapable conclusion: We must do something about the shootings.

I heard it on the campaign trail, and it has been repeated again and again since I took office nine months ago. Shootings affect more than just the people involved. They make people feel less safe in their homes; businesses worry their customers won't show up; and, worst of all, shootings tend to result in more shootings.

That's because retaliation is the main impetus behind gun violence in our community. In Chattanooga, as in every city, gun violence is concentrated among a small number of extremely active groups -- "gangs," drug crews, "sets," and the like. Across cities, up to three-quarters of all homicide is connected with group members representing less than half a percent of the population. The thinking is not complicated. You shot at me and my group, so my group and I are going to shoot at you and your group. And the cycle keeps going. It is concentrated among young black men, who in some neighborhoods are at terrible risk for being shot, killed, and going to prison.

We must change that equation.

Fortunately, we can. A few months ago, we launched the Chattanooga Violence Reduction Initiative (VRI) modeled after the ceasefire concepts adopted around the country. Here's how it works. First, we map out the different groups around the city. Second, we show people we take action when shootings occur. Third, we communicate with them clearly and effectively: If a shooting occurs, law enforcement will focus in on you and your group for any and all crimes committed -- drugs, warrants, open cases, probation and parole violations, anything -- no matter which person pulls the trigger. And fourth, we offer services like vocational support and alcohol and drug rehabilitation to those who are willing to put down their weapons.

You also change the discussion. There are divides between law enforcement and the community, and it frequently boils down to race. The police have to be willing to see the community's perspective, and the neighborhoods have to understand law enforcement's desire to improve their streets. Once that conversation begins, the group members can hear a powerful voice -- the unified, moral voice of a community who wants violence to stop.

As this system has operated around the country, it has become apparent all the steps are necessary. The city must show its resolve so groups know it means business. Once that occurs, you can let the groups know their shootings will no longer be tolerated. At the same time, you open every door possible for those who want to change their lives. The goal is not to keep arresting, but to keep Chattanooga's young black men -- and everybody else -- alive, out of prison, and with a decent chance at a good and successful life.

When done right, it works. In Boston, the youth homicide rate declined by 60 percent. Cincinnati reduced its group-related murders by 41 percent. Chicago and New Orleans, traditionally amongst the most violent cities in the country, both saw historic drops last year after adopting the approach.

Here, we are in the middle of adopting this system, combining it with other policies like increasing the size of the police force, closing down event halls, and greater coordination between federal, state and local officials.

We saw progress at the end of last year. I took office in the middle of April. In the first 8 months of the year, we averaged 11.875 shootings a month. The last four months those numbers went down to seven, a 41 percent drop. We had 17 murders in our first 8 months of 2013, while we had only two in the last four, neither of which was group related.

In those same last four months, we saw 359 children participate in our new reading program, an opportunity that exists as we transform our recreation centers into Youth and Family Development Centers. I spoke a few weeks ago with an impressive group of young men in our recently initiated CAP program, mentoring teenagers on the life skills they will need to be successful in the long run.

Yet we must do something about the shootings today. That's why VRI is on track. While four months of improved numbers is a good sign, we must replicate success again and again, being diligent in communicating the consequences of gunfire and placing opportunities in front of those who want to leave a life of violence behind.

I hate every text, every phone call informing me a shot has been fired in Chattanooga -- and I am committed to changing it. The foundation of a better city is built on safety. The Chattanooga VRI is an important building block.

About the writer: Andy Berke is mayor of Chattanooga.

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soakya said...

It's a main reason I decided to run for this office;-Berke The main reason any politician runs for office is to serve his own self-interest. Period. That's why government needs to be as small as it possibly can be.

January 12, 2014 at 12:30 a.m.
jjmez said...

You have to make sure to incoporate people who are dedicated to improving situations in these communities. That includes everyone on up to and including law enforcement. Some of'em don't want matters to improve. It could have a negative impact on their own livelihood in the way of job promotions and retirement plans. The ills of these communities have become the source of job guarantees, promotions and many of them would have to find new employment if these problems didn't exist in these communities.

And remember, you're still going in rounding up people, arresting the, likely removing that primary breadwinner from the home. Let's look at contributing factors here. An arrest record can impacts the entire family, which eventually impacts an entire community. An arrest record on one member of the family can have a negative impact on other family membrers, even siblings and offsprings, in the job market. These roundups are not the solution. They are a major contributing part of the problem.

They way police have gone into these communities in the past have not played a positive roll. In many ways they contributed to the violence that has morphed. They spread false rumors about citizens, causing hostitilies, mistrust and suspicions from neighbor to neighbor.

Members of the African-American community need to stop pretending they are the spokesperson for everyone in the African-American community. Most don't have a clue. They need to stop talking about one another; trying to talk for one another, come out of their comfort zones and start talking TO one another. The African-American and many other communities have become so divided against one another and it was all stirred up primarily by law enforcement going in and causing the mistrust and division.

January 12, 2014 at 9:37 a.m.
RShultz210 said...

It would seem that, in order to be heard on a very important problem in the TimesMoneyPress these day one must tack one's letter to the editor onto someone else's political statement and hope that you pick right political statement and hope it is not deleted. When one writes a letter to the editor these days it's pretty much a toss up as to whether or not gets published. So since this is a somewhat decent statement about police violence among other things, I decided to tack my "comment"/letter to the editor onto it since the chances of my missive being published as an actual letter to the editor are probably slim because the editors are cowards. So here goes.

It’s Time To Start Shooting Back.

This country has become a police state where a citizen can be shot by law enforcement without a chance to defend himself. It is time for this outrageous violation of our right to life to stop, and for us to start defending ourselves by force of arms. Tennessee Code Annotated 39-11-611. states that we may use force against any law officer who: "uses or attempts to use greater force than necessary as long as: "The person using force reasonably believes that the force is immediately necessary to protect against the law enforcement officer's use or attempted use of greater force than necessary." I feel every citizen of the state of Tennessee should obtain a permit to carry a gun. I advocate as well that if it appears likely that a cop is about to employ excessive force that we respond with force. For those disagreeing with this concept I recommend this essay by Mr. Larken Rose available at the following site: "" This essay will provide some clarification on why we must use force to defend ourselves from those who feel they may take our lives without consequences. Richard W. Shultz

January 12, 2014 at 1:25 p.m.
jjmez said...

I guess I'm one of those who can't fanthom taking up arms against police. However, there is a serious need for police reform in the U.S. There's something gone terribly wrong when American citizens killed by cops in the U.S. now outnumber Americans killed by insurgents in Iraq, and possibly Afghanistan combined.

Sine 9/11 cops over 5000 Americans have been killed by law enforcement. That's a 4000% increase since the 1980s. At the same time Americans killed by insurgents in Iraq=3,500.

I know someone will jump in with the rationale about the number of Americans killed by criminals, but then you'd be equating cops to criminals, as if there's very little to no distinction between the two. Remember, cops are suppose to be the good guys who serve and protect. Criminals do what criminals do. They commit crimes. Big difference.

January 12, 2014 at 2:55 p.m.
jesse said...

WOW, Andy got some SERIOUS nut jobs stirred up with this one!!

Schultz ,some have tried shooting back, It's called "suicide by cop"!!

January 13, 2014 at 9:34 a.m.
LibDem said...

Community leaders need to be in the streets talking to people. Police need to be in the streets talking.

With Mr. Shultz running around, police need to be hunkered down in defensive mode and ready to shoot. This is not a good posture for interaction with the community. If the police are afraid of the community, they're going to be inclined to shoot. It's human nature and they're human.

January 13, 2014 at 1:17 p.m.
RShultz210 said...

Jesse the least you do if you're going to call me a "nutjob" is spell my name right. And if you want to be a police "accident" that's your problem. And sometimes instead of suicide by cop it gets cleaned up by the cops and instead of successful self defense it gets printed as "Cop killed in the line of duty" HOGWASH!!

January 13, 2014 at 5:21 p.m.
RShultz210 said...

LibDem the more afraid they are of us the better. I WANT them scared so they'll think twice before they draw that damned gun.

January 13, 2014 at 5:23 p.m.
RShultz210 said...

jjmez, there is indeed something terribly wrong when American citizens killed by cops in the U.S. outnumber Americans killed by insurgents in Iraq, and Afghanistan combined. And you had better LEARN to fathom taking up arms against police because it's GOING to happen. Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not for two or three years, but sooner or later 300,000,000 armed citizens are going to get PISSED. It's already started to happen, and you said it yourself, since 9/11 over 5000 Americans have been killed by law enforcement.

January 13, 2014 at 5:33 p.m.
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