What do gang members and bike advocates have in common?

What do gang members and biking advocates have in common? They are passionate, critical, and aggressive. And if a city engages them smartly and strategically, they can become effective partners. Just ask Fred Fletcher, Chattanooga’s Chief of Police, who has engaged gang members and bike advocates to create safer streets in two cities.

In Chattanooga, a small group of people is responsible for most of the city’s murders. Through the city’s Violence Reduction Initiative (VRI), the Chattanooga Police Department (CPD) uses data and intelligence to identify potential violent offenders based on their gang affiliation and history of violent crime. This central strategy of VRI is known as focused deterrence: the city’s finite resources are dedicated to targeting that small group who are responsible for most of the violence.

Through VRI, these potential violent offenders are invited by CPD to events known as call ins, in which they meet with community leaders, clergy, police, and reformed gang members, who spread this message:

We will help you if you let us and stop you if you make us.

For a VRI participant who takes the city up on its offer of help, a 24/7 hotline is available with a social worker at the other end, thanks to a partnership between CPD and social services. However, if gang members ignore pleas from their community to leave their violent lifestyle, CPD will deploy all available resources to arrest them.

Targeting known offenders is a departure from stop and frisk and zero tolerance policies that have arguably eroded police legitimacy and social capital. In traditional policing, a surge of crime often leads to heavy enforcement of a neighborhood, which means that innocent people get stopped. In other words, entire communities can be victims. That is why one of the first changes Chief Fletcher made when he became leader of the CPD in 2014 was to stop asking how many tickets were written and how many arrests were made. Instead, he began asking, what problem did you solve? What was your strategy? And can you repeat it? Through a more holistic approach, CPD is intent on building up relationships with people victimized by crime, through one-on-one conversations on porches, living rooms, and sidewalks.

Does this strategy work? It depends on who you ask. There are skeptics who point to recent reports of the uptick in crime in major US cities as evidence that focused deterrence is not effective.

As Richard Berk, a professor of statistics and criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, says “crime, like politics, is local. It’s not about a city as a whole, it’s about neighborhoods.”  

When considering crime as a hyper-local, neighborhood issue, public opinion iSlide1s an important data point. For the past four years, 81% of respondents to Chattanooga’s community survey indicated that they feel “very safe” or “safe” walking alone during the day in their neighborhood. Respondents who rated the quality of police services and conduct of police officers as “very good” or “good” increased five percent from 2013, the year in which the VRI program began.

VRI data also support the program’s effectiveness. In 2015, CPD arrested over 300 gang members and took 23% more illegal weapons off the street as part of VRI. Further, 184 gang members have found employment, according to Mayor Berke’s State of the City address.

And if you ask Chief Fletcher? He knows from his experiences on the street every day, the strategy is working. Perhaps more important than its effectiveness is knowing Chattanooga solution to ending violent crime is an intelligent strategy that involves the whole community and does no harm. For Chief Fletcher, it’s the right way to do things, a “moral imperative”.

Before coming to Chattanooga, Chief Fletcher used a similar approach with Austin bike advocates. The Austin bike advocates were passionate and vocal about wanting safer cycling for their city, and they struggled to find a champion to help protect them as vulnerable community members.   Chief Fletcher took a strategic approach with the group and turned the energy they were using to fight city government into a positive force. In Chattanooga, CPD applied the same principles of engaging passionate critics to create the Safe Bicycling Initiative.

That community-focused approach is the key to Chief Fletcher’s success, and is central to his advice for city leaders: involve the entire community in your strategy. For any problem you are trying to solve, harness the power of people by knocking on doors, go to block parties, organize neighborhood walks, and find that small group of actors that can make the most change.

If your city wants to get started with its own strategic public engagement strategy, check out our community engagement playbook.

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Katherine Klosek


@KatKlosek | @Gov_Ex