published Sunday, February 5th, 2012

Facing up to Chattanooga gang violence


by Cliff Hightower
A 9mm round of ammunition.
A 9mm round of ammunition.
Photo by Tracey Trumbull.

The word has been out there for more than a decade, whispered in some political circles, discussed frankly inside police patrol cars, shouted from some church pulpits.

Gangs are in Chattanooga. Gangs are killing people in Chattanooga. Gangs are overrunning some Chattanooga neighborhoods.

Ministers have organized prayer circles with heads bowed. The Chattanooga Police Department has created and dismantled gang units. Social-work programs have been launched to give new opportunities to reformed gang members or to keep young kids from becoming gang members in the first place.

But the only quantifiable change is glaring: The number of gang members is now more than double the number of sworn police officers.

"The negligence of political bodies over the years has led us to this violent moment in time," Hugh Reece, former president of the Southeast Council of the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth, said in a recent email to the Times Free Press.

"No one wanted to take it serious a couple of years ago when the U.S. surgeon general classified the level of youth/gang violence as a public health crisis. Elected officials were extremely slow to admit the gang problem even existed, although citizens were being terrorized by angry youth. Prevention measures were never put into play."

Chattanooga Police Chief Bobby Dodd said the issue of gangs has been cyclical.

"We had it in the 1980s. We've had in the '90s. We had it in the early 2000s," he said.

"It's all about money and all about selling drugs. Period. When the leader gets taken off the streets and goes away for life, that's a big deterrent. We've had several like that. ... The only thing that's new is the age of some of the people doing the shootings -- 14-, 15-, 16-year-olds are shooting up neighborhoods and shooting at each other."

Though police have been dealing with gangs, there's been too little conversation elsewhere in the community, some say.

Hamilton County Juvenile Court Judge Suzanne Bailey has worked in the justice system targeting youth for about 30 years. She attended a steering committee meeting last week focusing on gangs.

"I think most of us agree, we've not done, as a community, what we could have done. And that's blame for all of us. There's no one group to blame."

Now the city's trying again. But skepticism remains.

The city has hired two anti-gang coordinators, an assistant district attorney and a retired minister, and vowed to use a federal program that has tackled gang issues successfully in other cities.

Some in the community think it's pretty much a new verse of the same old tune. Others, though, are hopeful the new plans will be more than words that linger on the lips of politicians and community leaders, but later die.

Politicians such as Mayor Ron Littlefield and Hamilton County Commissioner Greg Beck tout programs they've implemented to address the gang problem. Some programs succeeded at first, but died when community involvement and funding dried up.

And the problem is worse than ever.

Last year, two-thirds of the 25 killings in Chattanooga were blamed on gangs. That's up from 30 percent, or six of 20 homicides, reported in 2008.

City Councilman Russell Gilbert, who represents an area that includes Bonny Oaks Drive, Kings Point and part of Brainerd, recognizes a failure to adequately address the gang presence.

"If it were addressed years ago, we wouldn't have this problem now. But it's here now, so you have to address it," he said.

Reece said that outside of programs for jobs or education, increased police presence or stronger sentences for gang crimes, change must begin with residents.

"A lot of people want to dog the police department and judges, but they don't want to look in the mirror," he said. "Nothing is going to change in the city unless they step up to the plate. They all know who the drug dealers are. They all know who the gang members are."

PAST EFFORTS

In 2006, Littlefield's office endorsed Stop the Madness, a Christian nonprofit focusing on youth, after two shootings in one week. The city gave Stop the Madness $100,000 in each of two years, but then stopped the funding.

Program coordinator Ternae Jordan, who is also the pastor at Mount Canaan Baptist Church, said the organization does not promote itself as focusing on gangs.

"But we're still touching the lives of kids through enrichment programs and outreach. We don't have a gang program. We have a youth program. I struggle with giving kids credit for being in a gang. I think we have a youth problem. It criminalizes kids."

Littlefield touted Stop the Madness after a high-profile gang shooting.

Adrian Patton, 26, was shot and killed as he drove through the Emma Wheeler public housing complex. A couple of days later Jermaine Southers, 24, was shot and killed at East Lake Courts in retaliation for Patton's death.

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Michael "Mike Mike" Daniels, a Skyline Blood gang member, was sentenced to life for first-degree murder along with triggerman Timothy "Timbo" Evans, a "baby gangsta" who was 17 at the time.

In 2005, Littlefield created an Office of Faith-Based Initiatives to facilitate programs within neighborhoods and churches.

Al Chapman, who headed the nonprofit Front Porch Alliance, was hired to coordinate efforts. The initial goal was helping Gulf Coast evacuees after Hurricane Katrina, but it changed to dealing with gangs and neighborhood crime.

Chapman could not be reached for comment Friday.

Some churches made their own efforts to reach out to residents and pray for peace, to little effect.

Stanley Thurmond, chairman of the deacon board at Thankful Missionary Baptist Church in Avondale, began a Church Outside the Walls initiative in 2007.

"It was a direct response to a shooting two to three blocks from my church," Thurmond said. "God dropped in my spirit to approach them."

The first event involved 35 area churches. Members joined hands, encircling a block in Orchard Knob, to pray for gang members and for an end to the violence. The church still holds the event twice a year, but fewer visitors attend.

"There will be people going by church that will stop and listen," Thurmond said. "You might have half a dozen that will gather with us."

LACK OF MONEY

Even the efforts that showed success often lost steam and disappeared when the money ran out.

The federal Weed and Seed program took root in the Westside in 1995 and succeeded in fighting off crime until it ended there in 2006.

The next year, Weed and Seed -- a federal program that used a multifaceted approach to revitalize neighborhoods, including million-dollar grants to pay for community workers and police officers -- launched in East Chattanooga.

The program provided grants, with the theme of weeding out violence and seeding in jobs and success, as part of a nationwide effort to reduce gun violence.

Children were placed in classes at recreational centers. The police department had two officers focused on the area and trained residents to be vigilant through neighborhood watch programs. In the program's first 10 months there were 250 drug arrests, mostly from tips from residents of the East Chattanooga community.

Chattanooga police officer John Patterson was one of the Weed and Seed officers. On Thursday and Friday, Patterson, now an investigator with the city's Crime Suppression Unit, was part of a crime sweep set up by Chattanooga police and cooperating agencies. He patrolled in the Avondale area, near where he worked when he was assigned to a Weed and Seed neighborhood.

With Weed and Seed, he said, "All you ever did was look into complaints or stay in an area and take people to jail that were selling drugs, carrying guns or causing problems. Being in the same spot, you run into the same people over and over again. It doesn't take long to figure out who belongs there and who doesn't belong there. It was helpful to us and the community."

Gilbert believes Weed and Seed dealt effectively with gangs, but the result was to push them into other parts of the city.

"In order to solve the problem, you can't just hit one area," he said.

The East Chattanooga Weed and Seed funding dried up in 2011.

But Littlefield said he hopes to build on those initiatives after a federally endorsed Comprehensive Gang Model is implemented in Chattanooga.

The model coordinates existing resources to focus on preventing children from entering gangs and reaching out to gang members who have not committed violent crimes. A steering committee of community and political leaders coordinates the efforts.

As part of the program, the city hopes to have a gang assessment completed by Aug. 1 to identify neighborhood needs and residents' perception of the gang problem, accompanied with statistical data.

OTHER ATTEMPTS

In 2010, Hamilton County Commissioner Greg Beck said he wanted to seek a ceasefire after two deadly shootings near the Kanku convenience store on Wilcox Boulevard.

But he had worked on solving the gang problem long before that, Beck said.

"My solution for a part of that [was] I went out and created the first city/county summer work program" in 2007, he said.

"When we started we had 600 kids," Beck said. Those teens were working, keeping out of trouble and staying out of gangs, he said.

"It went well for three years, but people grow weary with fundraising and that kind of thing," he said.

If the city's new gang program expects to make a difference, it must do more than just "wipe up the spill," Beck said.

"You've got to stop the leak," he said.

Some of that starts before the kids even get into the school system, he said.

"A 3-year-old kid starts out looking at his environment," he said. "By 6 years old, it will already be determined what his values are."

Marti Rutherford, a City Council member throughout the 1990s, started a gang task force when she was in office. An estimated 40 people came to the table from government, law enforcement, nonprofits and local hospitals, she said.

"We had all kinds of organizations. People who wanted to step up and address the issue then," Rutherford said. "When Jon Kinsey became mayor, he put an ax to the task force. Isn't it a shame we didn't do something in 1996 rather than in 2012?"

Kinsey did not return two phone messages for comment on this story.

Reece said Rutherford's task force faded away and died after about five meetings.

Until the recent announcement of a new task force last year, "you haven't had one City Council member step out on a limb and do something like that," he said.

He said he used to talk with Kinsey about the growing gang problem when he noticed kids coming into Juvenile Court covered in gang tattoos and talking about violence in the Westside neighborhood.

"He was aware of the situation," Reece said.

NO CHEAP FIX

Despite the struggles and failures of the past, Rutherford said she is pleased with the current efforts to combat gangs.

"Of course, you've got two choices. You can ignore the problem and allow it to grow and fester, or you can take positive action," she said.

"There are neighborhoods I don't want to drive through in the daytime. I don't drive through them at night. I shouldn't live in a city where I feel that way. What if I had to live in one of those neighborhoods?"

Reece said no matter what plan of action is put into place, it must have long-term funding.

"Major money will be needed, so taxpayers, get ready for major property tax increases," he said. "Leaders did not want to address this issue in the beginning, so we citizens will have to pay in the end to get a control of this problem.

"Funding will have to be stepped up. Attempting to change a culture with extremely deep-rooted issues is not cheap; a culture that cares nothing for family, school, church or community; a culture with its own set of values. It won't be cheap or easy."

about Ansley Haman...

Ansley Haman covers Hamilton County government. A native of Spring City, Tenn., she grew up reading the Chattanooga Times and Chattanooga Free Press, which sparked her passion for journalism. Ansley's happy to be home after a decade of adventures in more than 20 countries and 40 states. She gathered stories while living, working and studying in Swansea, Wales, Cape Town, South Africa, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Ga., and Knoxville, Tenn. Along the way, she interned for ...

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