'Nobody was born bad' Officials differ on approach, reason behind helping violent offenders By Allison Shirk Collins

Criminologist David Kennedy advocates providing social services for violent offenders and gang members.

It’s part of his stick-and-carrot method of combating violence.

His crime-reduction strategy — known as focused deterrence — offers criminals a choice: Give up guns and violence and get education, job training and referrals and other aid, or remain a criminal and become the focus of police attention and face severe punishment.

Chattanooga police officers stand at a Chattanooga City Council meeting to discuss how they deal with gang violence. Staff file photo by Tim Barber

But the social service side “was less about getting people jobs than it was about resetting, creating legitimacy,” he writes in his 2011 book, “Don’t Shoot: One Man, a Street Fellowship and the End of Violence in Inner-City America.”

“It said to the neighborhoods and the streets, ‘The outside cares about you and wants you to succeed,’” Kennedy wrote. “It meant the streets couldn’t say anymore, ‘They won’t give us a chance, they hate us.’”

In 2014, shortly after Andy Berke became mayor of Chattanooga, he brought Kennedy’s model to the city with hopes it would decrease the gun violence. There were 27 total homicides in 2014 with 20 carried out by a gun.

As a condition of their probation, gang members attend “call-ins” where local officials, victims, ex-gang members and community leaders try to reason with them. They are told if they continue to commit violent crimes, they will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

Since Berke began focused deterrence, called the Violence Reduction Initiative, or VRI, social services for violent offenders have been inconsistent and hard to secure. The idea is that employment, better housing or other help will motivate them to transition out of that lifestyle.

Berke said social services have great downstream effects, but he acknowledged the “rockiness” of the organizations providing them. The city has contracted with two different nonprofit groups in five years, and each has weathered some controversies and debate about its methods.

However, Berke said he believes providing consistent social services is not crucial to the VRI’s success. In the mayor’s view, providing gang members the choice to opt out of that lifestyle gives law enforcement officials credibility when they hand down a harsher-than-usual punishment.

He pointed to Kennedy’s words.

“The idea behind the social services component is that it establishes trust with the community,” he said, adding that the lack of social services has not had a direct effect on gun violence in the city.

Kennedy’s model in Cincinnati showed the Cincinnati Initiative to Reduce Violence, or CIRV, didn’t seem to have a strong social services component in the first few years either.

An evaluation of the program by the University of Cincinnati in 2011 stated that while 622 offenders received help from CIRV-sponsored social services during the first 42 months, only 8 percent “actively engaged” in a program, the evaluation states.

In South Philadelphia, where focused deterrence was implemented in 2013, members of the police department’s gang task force said several violent offenders didn’t take advantage of programs that could have helped them.

A 2018 evaluation of the program in the Journal of Experimental Criminology found a full-time social services director offered help to 112 group, or gang, members across 14 gangs and only 33 percent, or about 36 members, accepted some form of help.

Gang task force member Anthony Mergiotti echoed the same thoughts as Kennedy and Berke. Even if group members didn’t take the help, it showed the community that officers weren’t just there to arrest people.

“The community accepted us because of the social services aspect,” Mergiotti said. “They knew we were offering these kids help, and we weren’t just out there looking to lock them up.”

In Chattanooga, Father to the Fatherless, or F2F, did not have its contract to provide social services renewed in 2018, because city council members said they did not have enough data to show how the nonprofit had helped with providing services for the VRI.

David Banks led a session on mentoring troubled youth at Hope City Church in Brainerd on July 28, 2017. The Citizen Safety Coalition and Father to the Fatherless held the training session. Staff Photo by Robin Rudd

Father to the Fatherless executive director April Boozer said the organization did provide city officials with information. Boozer provided the Times Free Press with a report submitted to a city official on Nov. 1, 2017, and it states that F2F had found group, or gang, members were reluctant to call the VRI crisis hotline, and out of 15 VRI participants who attended one of the call-in meetings and signed up for services from F2F, only one showed up and received help from the nonprofit.

“F2F did what we were contracted to do,” Boozer said in an email. “The city decided to go a different route.”

“The VRI had been around for a while, but no one ever specified what they were looking for,” Boozer added.

She said F2F actually provided the city with more information than what was requested.

“The community accepted us because of the social services aspect. They knew we were offering these kids help, and we weren’t just out there looking to lock them up.”

In Chattanooga, public safety coordinator Troy Rogers has taken on the task of providing offenders and at-risk youth with help since 2016. He is the second director for the VRI social services component, and he says he considers himself a social justice advocate above all else.

Since the beginning of the year, when three new “intervention specialists” started helping with the social services side of VRI, Rogers said they have helped more than 30 people fill out an assessment that identifies their biggest needs and how intervention specialists can help. Most participants need help finding a job or housing.

“We’ve got some real problems — a lot of illiteracy and mental issues,” Rogers said about participants.

The people they have helped don’t just come to them through the VRI but also through job fairs and other events the city hosts. Rogers said he wants to do more and wishes he had more employees to help with social services.

Rogers does multiple things in the community outside of VRI, like job fairs for felons and events for high-schoolers and middle-schoolers, too. Once a month, Rogers meets with other community stakeholders on the Citizen Safety Coalition to discuss tactics on how to keep young men and women out of trouble.

Chattanooga Public Safety Coordinator Troy Rogers moderates the monthly meeting of the Citizen Safety Coalition held at Brainerd High School on March 28, 2019. Staff photo by Robin Rudd

While Kennedy or the mayor might see the social services component as just establishing trust within a community, Rogers believes there’s more to it.

Mentorship and relationships are what can change the trajectory of a young person’s life, Rogers said.

“It’s a social-economic situation — nobody was born bad,” he said. “Somebody missed something somewhere that probably happened in elementary school.”

That's why Rogers said he focuses heavily on Chattanooga’s youth. If they don’t want to go to college, then Rogers said he is trying to get them in the workforce as soon as possible before they choose a different lifestyle.

Rogers sees the approach working; city officials say homicides and shootings involving gang members are down in 2019. It’s about providing consistent services and opportunities for people who have had doors “slammed in their faces,” he said.

“In the past, we’ve asked law enforcement to do too much,” he said. “They are not social workers, mental health counselors … we have to stand up and take a bigger hold on our community.”

In Cincinnati, CIRV program manager Stan Ross says law enforcement has its rightful place, but the community has to play a critical role in helping to end gun violence. One doesn’t work without the other, he said.

“The best investment we can make is not necessarily in a bigger gun,” Ross said. “The best investment we can make is in each other.”