The task of stopping gangs in Chattanooga is going to take people who will quit pointing fingers and start holding hands.
That's what several local leaders say about findings in a six-month assessment of gangs' presence and impact in city and county schools and the larger community.
"Everybody knows we have gangs -- you didn't need a study for that," said Ann Jones Pierre, with the community-building Neighborhood Alliance.
"The question is, what is the community going to do about that? It's not one person's responsibility. Everybody in government is going to have to help. It's your responsibility with our tax dollars."
But that's going to mean overcoming profound distrust of the very institutions entrusted with finding solutions -- the criminal justice system, elected officials, church leaders, nonprofits and schools -- documented in the study by the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies.
"If this assessment is not utilized to strategically attack long-standing economic, social, political and cultural roots that foster gang activity, future community development efforts will likely be met with apathy and higher levels of distrust," the assessment states.
That's a familiar story to Michael Cranford, president of the Boys & Girls Club of Chattanooga.
"I think there is a reluctance of people joining and being part of it ... because in some sense, they've seen similar things before," Cranford said.
The assessment gives "a venue to say this is what we've been telling you for many, many years. To me, the foundation community can take this information and look at where they need to invest resources and invest money and do something in a different way," he said.
What it said
Among highlights from the assessment:
• Gang recruitment starts early, often when kids are between 9 and 11 years old. But it's not uncommon for 3- to 4-year-old children to flash gang signs. The average gang member is 23 years old, and about 16 percent are women.
• Students surveyed in 13 area schools say they feel unsafe at school and at home when it comes to gang activity. Teachers and school staff say they feel unequipped to deal with the problem.
• Gangs aren't just an inner-city problem. While most of the gang-related crimes happen in East Chattanooga, Avondale, Alton Park and the Westside, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's Center for Social and Applied Research found gang-related youth in every Chattanooga ZIP code.
• Many gang members said they were involved in school, social and church programs as youngsters, but "the availability of those programs failed to protect them and their family members from the negative impacts of life on the streets."
• The latest Chattanooga police figures counted 1,391 gang members and 40 active gangs. That's up nearly 27 percent from last year when police documented 1,100 gang members.
A lack of trust
For years, residents have watched programs targeting low-income, crime-ridden communities come and go. When funding dries up, so does the effort. Every so many years when a high-profile shooting occurs or the number of assaults reaches critical mass, politicians and local leaders call for needed action to deal with the problem. But time goes by and the attention fades until the next violent tragedy.
Kimberly Porter with the National Gang Center in Tallahassee, Fla., helped the local anti-gang task force develop the assessment, and she visited Chattanooga last week to speak to team members Boyd Patterson and Fred Houser.
"One of the things I talked with everybody about is using the assessment to drive activities, taking those key findings and meeting with the steering committee to develop a strategic plan to address those findings," Porter said in a telephone interview Friday.
While poverty, poor education and lack of jobs are common factors in the growth of gangs, Porter said, each community also has important local factors.
For instance, she said, "in Chattanooga, there's been some issues with housing and the closure of housing projects. There may be shifts of gang territories based on those factors."
The model's five core strategies aim to help anti-gang programs sustain themselves as needs and priorities change over time, Porter said, and the key is human involvement at all levels.
"As the community is mobilized, you have additional people that come in and really get involved to address the priorities," she said.
What to do
The assessment makes some key recommendations:
• Create initiatives in Hamilton County Schools to address gang concerns and disciplinary protocols. The assessment noted that many teachers said they had no training in recognizing or responding to gang behavior.
"Maybe that's something we need to talk more about with our resource officers and our teachers to open up the lines of communication," said schools Superintendent Rick Smith.
• Because data on gangs is "inaccurate and incomplete," the Chattanooga Police Department and Hamilton County Sheriff's Office should establish gang data collection protocols.
"Of course we are always looking for a better way to do things going forward, and we will take the criticism and learn from it," said Chattanooga Police Chief Bobby Dodd.
• Find real job training and opportunities for current and would-be gang members.
"When you interview these kids, the first thing they tell you is they want a job," said Napoleon Williams, retired Chattanooga police captain whose organization, People United Living in Love, finds jobs for gang members.
"If we get them a job, they'd get out of the gang tomorrow. They're tired of going to jail. They're tired of getting shot at. They want to get their GED."
But Dodd said they have to be real jobs, with decent paychecks and a future.
"Having a Saturday [event] to come help us clean up the park for $7.50 an hour, gangbangers are going to say, 'Yeah, you know what you can do with that job.' ... They need $15-an-hour jobs where they can get cars and benefits. And tell them, you're on probation. Screw up and you don't have a job. Period."
• Involve UTC doctoral faculty in helping "teach, train, mentor, tutor and empower low-income communities."
• Examine nonprofit and faith-based programs to find what's most effective and share resources to form coalitions to best help high-crime neighborhoods.
• Parks and Recreation should examine oversight at some recreation centers. Some gang members told interviewers an initiation took place in a bathroom. Other activities took place near the center buildings.
The Chattanooga City Council will hear a presentation on the Comprehensive Gang Assessment on Thursday.
The timeline calls for implementing programs for those most in need. That includes building intervention teams to reach gang members and those at risk, said Patterson.
That should take three to six months, according to the plan.
"What I am asking is for those people who are skeptics -- understandably so because of the history -- to keep an open mind. Don't count it out. Make up your own mind. Have high expectations, but also have realistic expectations," Patterson said.
"What is going on right now is different. And we ask to be judged on what we do with the gang situation ... and what programs we roll out. That's what this community deserves is to move forward."
Staff writer Kevin Hardy contributed to this article.
Contact staff writer Beth Burger at bburger@times freepress.com or 423-757-6406.
Contact staff writer Judy Walton at jwalton@times freepress.com or 423-757-6416.
Judy Walton has worked 25 years at the Chattanooga Times and the Times Free Press as an editor and reporter focusing on government coverage and investigations. At various times she has been an assistant metro editor, region reporter and editor, county government reporter, government-beat team leader, features editor and page designer. Originally from California, Walton was brought up in a military family and attended a dozen schools across the country. She earned a journalism degree ...
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