published Wednesday, March 12th, 2014

Letters kick off Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke's violence reduction plan

Lt. Todd Royval of the Chattanooga Police Department discusses updates on the Chattanooga Violence Reduction Initiative during a Dec. 11, 2013, meeting at City Hall in Chattanooga.
Lt. Todd Royval of the Chattanooga Police Department discusses updates on the Chattanooga Violence Reduction Initiative during a Dec. 11, 2013, meeting at City Hall in Chattanooga.
Photo by Maura Friedman /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

CORRECTIONS HAS ITS MEETINGS, TOO

This isn't the first time that letters have been sent to convicted offenders on probation to attend meetings involving a city crime initiative.

Meetings through the Tennessee Department of Correction Probation and Parole in the past couple of years featured federal prosecutors telling of lengthy sentences if offenders commit new crimes. There is no parole in the federal prison system.

In the past, corrections staff might be present to encourage counseling, drug rehab or education. The department's employment specialist might help make appointments with anyone interested. However, more often than not, people who actually offered those services from outreach organizations in the community were not in the room.

That's changing with the new initiative, though.

"There is going to be more of a focus," said Gale Reed, district director of state Department of Correction. "Just with the number of years we've been moving toward this point, ... we're trying to refine it and ensure that we're putting something out there that can be delivered on."

Reed said monthly meetings with all probationers will continue in addition to the meetings coordinated by the city's violence reduction imitative.

"We still need to get the message out," she said. "We're still working with U.S. attorneys on that."

— Compiled by staff writer Beth Burger

Violence Reduction Initiative Letter
Violence Reduction Initiative Letter
  • photo
    Andy Berke
    Photo by Tim Barber.
    enlarge photo

The clock will soon start ticking.

Letters that were mailed out Monday are making their way into the hands of 25 selected people across the city.

Many of them have had their names brought up in connection with shooting investigations.

All of them are on probation for previous convictions.

"You are asked to attend a meeting," a draft of the letter begins.

Yet a failure to attend "will be considered a failure to report and may result in a violation of your probation," the letter states.

All are expected to attend a meeting this month where prosecutors, police officers, city leaders, community leaders, nonprofit caseworkers and even people who have lost loved ones to violence will be present.

They have a message to deliver: The violence must stop.

The letters are the first tangible sign that the start of Mayor Andy Berke's Violence Reduction Initiative has arrived. Months of study, training, discussion and meetings about Chattanooga's rising tide of shootings and what to do about it has led the city to this moment.

But the meeting, important as it is, only sets the table. It's what happens afterward that really matters.

Will the probationers get the message? Will they accept the offer of help? Will it help stem the violence?

The answers to those questions will prove pivotal in coming months.

The 25 people in the room will be told to expect help from local outreach programs when they try to change their lives. In return, police and city leaders will expect fewer shootings.

Chattanooga Police Lt. Todd Royval said he will outline what will happen if the violent crimes continue.

"I believe they will take it seriously," he said. "You can't guarantee everyone will take it seriously, but ... when they see the community is behind everything and that they are part of the community and keeping it safe, it makes more sense."

Many people still are convinced that the plan will not work.

One resident of the South side, who declined to give his name for fear of retaliation, was among them. Shootings have risen in his neighborhood, and he said he doubts that those "invited" to the meeting will take it seriously.

"The number one rule of the game is not to follow the rules," he said.

Intelligence from the police department determined who was invited to the meeting.

"When you look and see the same names keep popping up for the shootings and the murders, those are the people we're going to go after," Royval said.

Even under the best of circumstances, it's going to take time for the initiative to work.

"I think as the trust is built and relationships are fostered, then I think it could be an awesome thing," said Richard Bennett, director of A Better Tomorrow.

The local nonprofit reaches out to at-risk groups to teach life skills and shed light on opportunities that seem out of reach for youth growing up in areas plagued with violence and poverty.

He said many of them typically function in survival mode, living one day to the next.

"They know I've been there and done that. They know I'm not going to give them a lot of bull," Bennett said.

"We're sincere in our efforts. We're sincere in the longevity," he said. "The mayor has four years. This is my life. I plan on teaching someone else this legacy. There's got to be a dedication to it."

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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