Dexter Smith, 46, sat on the front porch of his Sharp Street house this summer, pointing to packs of young men wearing similarly colored clothes.
Gang members, he said.
“There’s some right there,” he said. “You might see a fight down here one day, a fight there the next day.”
Mr. Smith remembers a time when people weren’t afraid to sit on their front porches at night. Now they stay indoors, leery of stray bullets coming from the crossfire of gang violence, he said.
Mr. Smith uses a different avoidance tactic.
“You don’t bother them, they won’t bother you,” he said.
Many local residents hesitate before talking about gang violence because they prefer keeping to themselves. Others don’t want to become victims. But those who don’t speak out risk losing their communities to gangs, law enforcement officials say.
“If they just sit back and let it go, the gangs will take over their neighborhoods,” said Sgt. Todd Royval, supervisor of the Chattanooga Police Department crime suppression unit, which patrols streets for gang activity. “If they put up a little bit of a fight, it won’t take us long to get rid of them from that specific neighborhood.”
Residents should pay attention to who commits what crimes, where suspicious people hang out and where graffiti pops up, then notify police, he said.
No neighborhood is immune.
Staff Photo by Dan Henry
James Moreland, chairman of the East Side Weed and Seed program, stands near one of 40 signs that designate the program's eight-neighborhood coverage area. The Weed and Seed program works hand in hand with the Chattanooga Police Department to reduce gang activity, drug use and sales and prostitution while helping youth find direction and keep from joining gangs.
“You can’t really say gangs are predominately in the low-income areas because they’re everywhere,” Sgt. Royval said. “You can’t blame it on our poor parts of town because it can be in any neighborhood.”
Gang members often live outside the areas they target for crimes, officers said.
Law enforcement solutions
The crime suppression unit, formed in June 2007, patrols the city nearly every night, looking for gang members. Officers chat with them, learn about their colors and symbols and try to understand their mindset. Face time with known gang members allows officers to learn more than they would sitting behind a desk waiting for a phone call.
“We find the gang members and drop hints that we know what’s going on with them and let them know they’re not as untouchable as they think they are,” Sgt. Royval said. “If they’re doing wrong, we put them in jail.”
The unit also offers presentations on gang symbols, colors and how parents and educators can look out for gang activity.
The unit, however, does not only stop known gang members. Officers often pull over cars that run stop signs or have a taillight out, just to check and see what people are up to and if anything illegal involving drugs or the like is occurring, said Officer Michael Bolton, a member of the crime suppression unit.
“You have to stop honest people to catch the bad people,” he said.
The police department keeps a list of validated gang members, including their street names and real names, said Lt. Tim Carroll, head of the major crimes division. Investigators use the list to determine whether an incident is gang-related.
While gang members hesitate to reveal their affiliations, police usually find them out when members are arrested and taken to jail and must be isolated from members of other gangs and the general population, he said. Members tell police they belong to one gang so they do not have to live with members of rival gangs, which could lead to fights, he said.
No clear-cut neighborhood solutions
Neighborhood leaders gathered in late April to discuss the gang problem with police. They wrote a list of five goals they hoped to accomplish, including setting up meetings to unite organizations interested in solving the problem and compiling a resource book of organizations willing to help young people.
Since the first meeting, there have been no more citywide collaboration efforts, but organization leaders took ideas back to their respective groups, said Chattanooga Police Department spokeswoman Sgt. Jerri Weary, who helped organize the April meeting. She said she could not gauge their effectiveness because she had not spoken with each group.
Many attended a summer meeting hosted by Mayor Ron Littlefield on ways organizations could promote positive youth activities, she added.
Several groups expressed interest in creating a list of organizations, and Sgt. Weary said she contacted the mayor’s office about collecting information so people know where to send youth for activities such as flag football teams or reading programs.
“It is something that we’re aware of and trying to work on,” she said. “We’re trying to figure out what’s better than TV to get the word out about these events.”
Young people may respond more positively when they see alternatives to gangs and violence, said James Moreland, chairman of the East Chattanooga Weed and Seed steering committee. Communities in the Weed and Seed areas — which are given federal grants to battle gang activity — offer camps at recreational buildings and partner with churches to provide fun activities, he said.
“All of that activity is aimed to try to get a kid some options,” Mr. Moreland said. “If nothing is out there except joining a gang, that’s what they’re gonna do.”
Challenging churches and organizations to promote positive youth activities works only to an extent, said Hugh Reece, community outreach consultant for the Community Anti-Drug Coalition Across Hamilton County.
Community leaders, local governments, business owners and residents all must work together to help youth and stop violence, he said.
Businesses should hire young people — even those with troubled pasts — to give them something to occupy their time. The government should spend money on setting up job training or beneficial programs for youth, he added.
Church leaders need to not only say they’ll help, but follow through on that promise, Mr. Reece said.
“If you can’t come together and create a message that the kids will understand, actually step out of your comfort zone, step out of the box and step out onto their territory, down to their level, and communicate with them, you won’t be able to make no headway,” he said.
Parents need to take action
Changing youth attitudes starts inside the home, said Dorothy Johnson, the mother of LaTony Johnson, who was stabbed to death in late June in East Lake. Ms. Johnson says her son was not affiliated with a gang, but police say LaTony Johnson and Courrie Long, the man charged in connection with his death, were members of different gangs.
“I think more parents need to start getting involved, see what your child is doing, go to the schools, check with them on a regular basis, get them in church, get them involved in some kind of activity,” she said.
She also talks with as many children as she can, sharing her story and offering hope.
“I think most kids will respond to a mother that’s been down that path and trying to teach them that there’s other ways to go in life,” Ms. Johnson said. “It’s a better world out here. All you gotta be able to do is reach.”
- Yes 79%
- No 21%
212 total votes.
Policing Chattanooga's gangsRide along with investigator Michael Bolton as he and other members of the Chattanooga Police Department’s crime suppression unit identify and police gangs in inner-city neighborhoods.