Chattanooga Housing Authority no-trespass list comes down to discretion

Chattanooga Housing Authority no-trespass list comes down to discretion

November 12th, 2012 by Beth Burger in Local Regional News

Chattanooga Housing Authority Police Chief Felix Vess speaks during a press conference off of Holtzclaw Ave.

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

WHOM TO CALL

Residents can contact Chattanooga Housing Authority police by sending an anonymous text message to 423-451-6898 or calling 752-4467. The hotline to report drug activity is 209-2020.

Document: Trespass Appeal Packet

Chattanooga Housing Authority Trespass Appeal Packet

Six months ago Cedric Conner was released from the penitentiary.

After serving time for aggravated assault, he hopes to make a fresh start.

He goes to the library daily to fill out job applications online.

He tries to be a better father to his 7-year-old son who lives in College Hill Courts.

There's just one problem.

Conner isn't allowed to come on Chattanooga Housing Authority property.

Last month when he was leaving the apartment where his son lives, he was stopped by a police officer who checked his background and found his criminal history. Conner was placed on the CHA's no-trespassing list even though he was not arrested for a new offense.

"At the time, I was doing nothing," he said. "I'm trying to be there for my kids and stuff. I definitely have to be here for them. That's definitely going to create a problem. Every time I come out here, I risk being arrested."

There's no formal criteria to decide who's put on the no-trespassing list. It comes down to the discretion of the officer, which is later reviewed by supervisors.

Police can place someone on the list who brings drugs onto the property or who harms or threatens to harm residents or housing authority employees. Gang membership is a consideration.

A person doesn't have to be arrested for a crime to make the list -- just being named in a police incident report sometimes can be enough.

"It's not automatic," said CHA Police Chief Felix Vess.

Criminal history is one of the strongest factors considered.

Conner said that's what was cited for placing him on the list.

"I understand him [the officer] doing his job, but I feel like you should be able to make a determination on an individual basis," Conner said. "Since I had a prior record, I'm on the list."

Conner, 39, has one prior drug charge and a couple of assault charges dating back nearly a decade. His most serious charge stems from 2008 -- attempted murder and aggravated assault. The attempted murder charge was dismissed. and he was sentenced to a six years for aggravated assault, according to court records.

Conner is one of about 2,015 people on the CHA no-trespass list, police said. In 2011, the housing authority's five officers cited 110 people for criminal trespassing. Arrests for criminal trespassing made by Chattanooga police patrolling the projects are included in the city department's overall statistics.

Vess said officers patrolling housing authority property are instructed to stop residents and ask questions.

"We tell our officers to stop and ask if they live here," Vess said. "We're out there to be proactive."

Sometimes the result is adding people to the list or making an arrest.

"We're trying to do this as fairly as we can, but we're also trying to protect the residents in our community," Vess said.

He said 70 percent of the victims and suspects associated with crimes that take place in the projects do not actually live on housing authority property.

The stops and the questions have increased tensions between some residents and the police.

"It's a very stressful atmosphere," Conner said. "I gave the utmost respect to an officer. It's not so much the trespass list, it's the attitude. It almost provokes people to lash out."

Police argue that not all residents are opposed to the list. Some are glad police are working to quash problems, officers say.

Last month several men, some with gang ties and criminal histories, attended a job training program held near College Hill Courts. Some whose names were on the list were arrested for criminal trespassing.

Officials called the incident a misunderstanding. The men have since been given passes for the time the class is held.

People who want their names removed from the trespass list can fill out a five-page form that is reviewed by CHA police. People with misdemeanor convictions who did not appeal their cases can get off after five years if they commit no new offenses. It's 10 years for those with felony convictions, no appeal filed and no new offenses.

Once an application is filed, police decide within 30 days whether the person stays on the list or legally come back on the property.

Conner has applied. He hopes he makes it off but thinks there needs to be a better system in place.

"They [police] need a new approach," he said. "They can't make the community better when there's no help from the community. There's no communication from the police. It's a one-sided approach."