The bleachers stacked against the walls at Tennessee Temple's McGilvray Gym could have been filled with members of the overflow crowd, who instead stood for Mayor-elect Andy Berke's first public event since election day—a forum on crime and public safety.
More than 400 citizens, law enforcement officers and public officials were on hand for the event Thursday evening. It came following a particularly pervasive stretch of violent crime in Chattanooga—only six "quiet" days had passed in the time since March 5, by one reporter's account, when the city had not experienced a shooting that resulted in injury or death.
Offering opening remarks to the audience, Berke described recently talking to youth who were classmates of the victim of a recent shooting.
Berke said he had become "angry" with the continuous pattern of crime.
"I am angry and disappointed by the events of the last two weeks," Berke said. "We have all been following the news. Chattanooga must be safer, stronger and sounder in the next four years, safer because our crime rate is simply unacceptable. Too many people in our great city live in fear."
Before calling on a panel of leaders from community organizations, Berke emphasized his hopes that attendees would play a participatory role in focus groups that would be taking place later in the evening.
"Tonight, I need to hear from you," he said. "I need to hear your thoughts, your experiences and the goals you see for our community. More than anything, I need your help."
The lineup of panelists consisted of Paul Fuchar, executive director of the Council for Alcohol and Drug Abuse Services; Charlotte Boatwright, chairwoman of the Domestic Violence Coalition; Paul Green, executive director of Hope for the Inner City; District Attorney Bill Cox; Rev. Ternae Jordan of Mt. Canaan Church; and Helen Eigenberg, professor of criminal justice at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
Berke moderated discussion between the panelists, who offered insights on how they had observed factors contributing to unsafe communities, along with ways they had seen positive changes brought about over time.
Although much of the public discussion on crime in Chattanooga has pertained to gang violence in recent months, issues of domestic crime, drugs and alcohol, and recidivism were also discussed by panelists.
District Attorney Bill Cox said a holistic approach needed to be taken toward addressing crime by communities as a whole. Cox, who is often called to visit crime scenes, described feeling sadness multiple times this week when witnessing the corpse of a dead victim lying in the street.
"I feel an overwhelming sense of sadness that someone that age with their life ahead of them has died," Cox said. "… We need to take ownership as a community of the violence in our community."
Charlotte Boatwright, who oversees programs offered to victims of domestic abuse, described the detrimental impact of crime by a few on communities as a whole. Boatwright reiterated the need for a holistic fix.
"These things have huge impacts on the community, so we need to get to the cause instead of looking at the signs and the symptoms," Boatwright said. "Something underneath is the cause of all of these symptoms, and they're all interrelated. Every person needs to be a part of the solution."
Following the panel discussion, audience members separated into roundtable focus groups to answer three basic questions—what were they seeing in their own communities, what they could do to change it and what they would personally be willing to do to address any problems.
Facilitators moderated discussion, marking down notes on large notepads.
Berke, who said feedback would be compiled and used in future community efforts, quickly visited tables and listened to dialogue.
The mayor-elect said later that he was aware the forum would not likely provide any instant fixes to crime in Chattanooga. But Berke added his hope that the evening marked the beginning of a shift in attitude from community members toward making the city a safer place.
"I'm trying to enlist people in changing the future of our city," he said. "We planned to have a couple hundred people here tonight. We ran out after 400 nametags. There were probably 450-500 people here by our best estimate. Those are people who are engaged and want our city to be safer. I'm excited about utilizing the people in this room for Chattanooga."
To view a video recording of the forum, click here. Remarks begin at the 3:00 mark.