published Tuesday, June 10th, 2014

Arrest of Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke's violence reduction contact has City Hall scrambling

CLOSER LOOK

A look at Richard Bennett's nonprofit A Better Tomorrow:

• Founded: 2001

• 2012 total revenue: $161,346

• 2012 total expenses: $160,848

• 2012 Payroll: Richard Bennett, president, $55,000; Jessica Bennett, secretary/treasurer, $10,743

• Mission: "To help at-risk youth discover their purpose through life skills development and mentoring programs."

Source: Most recent 990 tax form for A Better Tomorrow

The phone number that connected gang members to a better life — a key part of Mayor Andy Berke's plan to reduce shootings and killings in Chattanooga -- is now tied to a man caught with his pants down.

Richard Bennett, founder and director of the nonprofit A Better Tomorrow, was the face of a second chance for participants in Berke's Chattanooga Violence Reduction Initiative, and the outreach started with his phone number.

Now countless numbers of those identified as violent by police have received a phone number for a man the city has disowned.

"Ready for a change?" reads the card.

Over the weekend the mayor's office cut ties with Bennett after he was found in a minivan with a woman and his pants unzipped. An arrest report states that police also found two bottles of Budweiser, an open bottle of tequila in plain view, along with a baggie with less than a gram of marijuana in the glove box and a container on his key chain containing one-and-a-half 7.5mg hydrocodone pills.

Bennett told police he had met the woman, Qwentina Holiday, to get information for the mayor's violence reduction initiative.

Over the weekend, Berke spokeswoman Lacie Stone said the city wouldn't tolerate criminal activity from anyone associated with the city's initiative and that Bennett's role had been halted.

Berke did not personally address the issue, but on Monday Stone emphasized that Bennett's elimination would not deter the program.

"The success of the Chattanooga Violence Reduction Initiative is dependent on our entire community putting an end to violence -- not one person or one agency," Stone said in an email.

Yet the arrest does undermine one of the mayor's key initiatives and comes as Bennett's nonprofit was on the verge of being considered for hundreds of thousands of dollars in city money to expand its role in the program.

The key to Chattanooga VRI is to build trust with the people most prone to violence. To convince them to put down the guns, a viable alternative to a life of crime must be available, and before Bennett's arrest leaders touted his work in building that trust with some of the city's most violent.

On Monday, the city scrambled to alert dozens of VRI participants and hundreds of people who called A Better Tomorrow in the past three months to let them know Public Safety Coordinator Paul Smith was taking over Bennett's role. In an email, Stone said anyone who called A Better Tomorrow would be rerouted to Smith.

Yet Bennett seemed unaware of these changes.

A reporter's first call to the primary VRI contact number went to a recording Monday. Bennett picked up on the second call.

"Exactly what are you talking about?" Bennett said when asked what will happen to the people who call the number on the card looking for help.

Bennett's attorney, Gerald Webb, could not be reached for comment.

Chattanooga's initiative involves calling in men involved in violent crimes and offering them a choice: Stop the violence or go to jail for a long time. The carrot for participants is access to education, job training and other skills needed to abandon crime.

In a meeting with the Times Free Press in late May, city leaders said 13 participants were meeting with Bennett on a regular basis and that 10 had found jobs because of the city's partnership with A Better Tomorrow.

This week, Bennett's role in the violence reduction initiative was set to expand after his organization was the only nonprofit group to respond to the city's request for proposals to coordinate social services for those taking part in the initiative and monitor their progress. In April, Bennett asked for $329,100 for a one-year contract with the city. But the city hadn't chosen whether to contract with Bennett before his arrest.

In his proposal for the contract, Bennett outlined why the city should choose his organization to be the face of VRI to the community. Because, he wrote, "[Our team members] have been assembled for this project specifically because of their enormous trust, confidence and ability to work well with each other."

In a 14-page document, Bennett detailed how he would hire outreach workers to supervise the participants in the call-in daily and find jobs, treatment and education for them.

The mayor's office will issue a new request for proposals to find a nonprofit to replace A Better Tomorrow, Stone said.

Before Bennett's arrest, city leaders told stories of the success they were seeing with the outreach Bennett provided.

Smith and police Lt. Todd Royval, the mayor's point men for the initiative, recalled an instance in which police delivered the VRI message at the home of a violent man. At his front door, they laid out the message and provided the man with Bennett's number.

Before they returned to their cars, the man had called the number to reach out for help.

Staff writer Yolanda Putman contributed to this story.

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at jlukachick@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659.

Contact staff writer David Cobb at dcobb@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6731.

about Joy Lukachick...

Joy Lukachick is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press Since 2009, she's covered breaking news, high-profile trials, stories of lost lives and of regained hope and done investigative work. Raised near the Bayou, Joy’s hometown is along the outskirts of Baton Rouge, La. She has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Louisiana State University. While at LSU, Joy was a staff writer for the Daily Reveille. When Joy isn't chasing ...

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