The statistics can seem daunting.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation recently named Tennessee the most dangerous state in the country. A 2010 study ranked Chattanooga’s crime rate the 11th highest of midsized cities. This year, there have been 83 shootings and 17 homicides in Chattanooga. Crime is consistently listed as one of the top concerns for area residents.
These points underscore what Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke calls a cycle of violent crime perpetrated by dozens of individuals who are responsible for the majority of shootings each year.
"Our streets are too dangerous," Berke said. "That affects so much in our community, from the way people feel in their homes to our economic development and recruiting businesses to come here."
The mayor discussed crime, his public safety strategy and other initiatives in an interview with Nooga.com on Monday from a third-floor conference room at City Hall.
Berke pointed to 2014 as a potential turning point for a strategy that involves additional police officers, a new crime-reduction policy and other components.
"What we’re doing is going to make a difference. 2014 will be a better year," he said.
After winning election in March, Berke named public safety as his top priority, and he announced the components of a comprehensive strategy to curtail crime and violence in Chattanooga—many of which have begun to take shape six months into his first term.
The mayor's operating budget will put more police officers on the streets than ever before. He named Paul Smith as public safety coordinator to help implement many of his initiatives. He created a coordinated council that consists of law enforcement and government officials from other jurisdictions. And the city is funding a new special prosecutor, Meredith Edwards, who will pursue cases that originate in the city limits from the U.S. attorney’s office.
Berke said his administration has made a lot of progress over the past six months, but the numbers still are not where he wants them to be.
The latest component to his public safety strategy is a crime-reduction model based on a plan first used in High Point, N.C., to reduce that city’s drug activity.
The Chattanooga City Council approved funding last week for David Kennedy, co-creator of the High Point and Ceasefire initiatives, and other researchers from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice to implement a similar model for area law enforcement and community groups.
The model identifies and targets the "small and active number" of people who are responsible for violent crime in Chattanooga, according to a copy of the proposal.
"My goal is to see our violence diminish greatly next year," Berke said. "I don’t want to promise the world. Things are complicated, and there are a lot of different factors that go into it. By the same token, we want to see the situation stabilize so that the fundamentals of crime are changing. High Point is a way to do that."
The High Point model cut violent crime in half over a five-year period where it was first implemented, according to an overview of the initiative. It has since been used in several other U.S. cities.
"What happens is that you identify the most dangerous individuals in the community and make an example of a group of them," Berke said. "Typically, that means being prosecuted federally because the federal sentencing guidelines are so much stricter than state punishments."
The next step would be identifying others in similar circumstances and showing them the consequences of their actions, Berke said.
"You go to them and say, ‘Here is what you face. Here’s an example of somebody just like you we prosecuted and who went to jail for a long, long time. If you continue to do what you’re doing, you will end up like them,’" he said.
In addition to strict law enforcement measures, the model provides individuals access to social services, from rehabilitation to support groups, as well as investing in the city’s youth.
A small number of people are responsible for a high amount of violence in Chattanooga. They often fall into a retaliatory cycle that begins when violent acts are committed against friends or fellow gang members. They retaliate. A chain reaction ensues, and the cycle continues, Berke said.
"That’s not sustainable," he said. "We have to stop that cycle."
Many of the individuals that will be targeted by this model are in gangs, but the mayor hesitates to use the term "gang leaders."
"Don’t think about this as a hierarchical business of gangs," he said. "A lot of these shootings have to do with honor and retaliation, rather than trying to protect a drug corner."
Berke first learned of the High Point model while he was a state senator. He invited Kennedy to speak at a full-day policy conference on crime at the Hamilton County Courthouse and was impressed by the results Kennedy discussed.
"He blew everybody in that room away," Berke said.
Berke cited the High Point model as one of his top policy goals while running for mayor earlier this year. Since taking office, he has mentioned it on several occasions.
"High Point and Ceasefire are incredibly important to what we’re doing," he said.
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