Chattanooga police go long and strong in East Lake

Chattanooga police go long and strong in East Lake

February 24th, 2013 by Beth Burger in Local Regional News

Investigator Curtis Penney responds to a domestic assault call with other officers off of Dodson Avenue.

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

POLL: Do police saturation patrols lead to civil rights violations?

The number of men lingering under the awnings of liquor stores and quick marts is dwindling, but Chattanooga Police Investigator Curtis Penney can see a few.

"Unless y'all own the building, hit the bricks," Penney says over a loudspeaker in a marked patrol car.

A couple of patrons at J&R Liquor on East 23rd Street begin to shuffle away.

Penney is among about 40 officers who normally don casual clothes and tactical vests as part of a specialized unit.

But for now, he is patrolling the East Lake area in a blue police uniform along with dozens of other officers normally assigned to specialized duty in narcotics, vice, crime suppression, fraud, property crimes and homicide units.

The beefed-up patrol manpower is needed to carry out an old strategy in a new way, one that Police Chief Bobby Dodd hopes will reduce crime and get rid of the loitering, prostitution and drug dealing -- the "quality of life" issues -- that plague the area and the law-abiding people who live there.

Dodd said this is an opportunity for residents to take back their neighborhoods.

"Give the neighborhood a foothold," he said. "Give them a fighting chance."

For three weeks now, the department has been flooding East Lake with as many as 50 officers at a time who look for suspects, serve warrants and show a presence, Dodd said.

Prostitutes walking under dim streetlights near South Willow Street have noticed the difference.

"They've been stopping everybody," said Julie Hendon, 42, who said she has worked as a prostitute for years.

"Saturations" of this kind have been around for years, with most lasting two to four days, but Dodd said this one might go on for one month, two, even three. And the prolonged saturation strategy may go on to be used in other areas as well, he said.

The downside is that the saturations suck up manpower from other units. The surge in police presence and vigorous enforcement tactics also can be a lightning rod for complaints from the public.

Thus far, though, police say they haven't encountered such criticism.

Linda Richards, president of the East Lake Neighborhood Association, said she hasn't heard of any neighbors upset by the extra police presence.

Residents complain the most about not having enough officers on the street, she said.

The area is typically patrolled by about six to seven officers.

"I think visibility is important," Richards said. "If offenders know [officers] are in the vicinity, I would think they would be extra cautious about doing things they shouldn't do."

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Dodd said he began the prolonged saturation Feb. 1 after hearing concerns from residents.

"I go out and talk with a lot of neighborhood groups, and they talk about the crime and the issues they are dealing with," he said. "It's all quality-of-life stuff. It's the loitering. It's the prostitution. It's the drug dealers. It's standing out in public and drinking -- being a nuisance in these neighborhoods."

Chattanooga police officers answer an estimated 220,000 calls for service each year, meaning that "the district cars don't have the time" to address what a saturation can, said Dodd.

"What we're doing is we're taking extra cars from around the department. We're taking investigative services that aren't on other calls and we're reassigning them to those locations on a temporary basis," he said.

The extra patrols go from the southern portion of Highland Park, past the East Lake Court housing projects adjacent to Interstate 24, to the Rossville Boulevard corridor.

Dodd said officers with specialized units will be able to work on their cases as needed.

He said it's unclear whether the impact of the saturation will last beyond the time the police presence goes back to normal.

"Is it effective? I mean, that's yet to be seen," said Dodd. "It works if you can saturate it and deal with issues. Say [it] gets cleaned up and people feel good two, three, four months. Is it worth the effort we spent there? To me it is."

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Back on the streets of East Lake, opinions differ on what will come of the operation.

The corner near the Boys and Girls Club in East Lake on East 25th Street Place is a magnet for loitering youths and gang affiliates.

"Since we've been doing this, I think the first couple of days was like, 'OK.' They're used to someone telling them to move along," Penney said. "About the third or fourth time of them actually getting stopped and interviewed, it's, 'Done with that.' Who knows? Maybe they'll not come back or they'll test the waters in a couple of months."

There always will be problems somewhere, said Hendon.

"There's going to always be prostitutes, and there's always going to be drugs," she said. "There's always going to be people who want it and people who do what they have to do to get it. It's plain and simple. And there's always going to be that man who wants a prostitute."

Walter Henry, 31, was searched by Penney on Thursday night after police received a call of a suspicious person at the King's Lodge on Westside Drive. He removed his shirt as Penney examined him under the glow of a flashlight.

Henry did not take issue with the officers, but isn't sure how much the extra police will help.

"They're just doing their job. I don't see anything wrong with it," he said. "If [violence] is going to happen, it's going to happen regardless."

Richards, the neighborhood association president, hopes other residents will take the opportunity to work with police.

"A lot of people are scared about reporting stuff because of retaliation. I think we're trying to get beyond that fear and report," Richards said. "I think a better change can come in this neighborhood."