East Lake Courts residents showed their thanks this week with a luncheon honoring CHA security officers and Chattanooga police. Among those honored were:
CHA officers: Chief Felix Vess, Lt. Jennifer Wright, Pete Galyon, James Avery, Harriet White
Chattanooga police officers: Capt. Edwin McPherson, Will McMillan, Justin Roberts and James Oister
A group of senior East Lake Courts residents is taking a stand against crime, saying they will call the police when they see illegal activity and they are not intimidated by threats of retaliation.
"We are tired of living like we're in the projects," said Jesse Lawrence, former president of the residents association at East Lake Courts, the city's second-largest public housing site. "We don't want to live like people who have to duck and dodge bullets."
Nearly a dozen residents, ages 60 to 74, say they have seen a reduction in gang activity and drugs in East Lake Courts thanks to police, and they have no intention of letting it creep back when the weather gets warmer.
"I've got one God and when he gets ready for me, I'll have to go," said 65-year-old Doris Smith. "Until then I'm not going to let fear rule my life."
The residents said they know little of Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke's initative to reduce crime and that their goal is to clean up East Lake.
But police and the city's public safety coordinator, Dr. Paul Smith, said it's this kind of commitment to fighting crime that is needed if the Violence Reduction Initiative is to be effective.
"The more citizens and police cooperate together, the more gets done," said Chattanooga police Capt. Brian Cotter, who oversees the East Lake and East Chattanooga communities. "The more [residents] see action taken on what they report, the more they feel empowered and the more they get involved."
Gretta Bush, president of the High Point Community Against Violence in North Carolina - the model for Chattanooga's violence reduction initiative - said the East Lake residents have the right idea and if other communities don't take the same stance against crime, criminals will move from East Lake to an area where residents refuse to report them.
"Every city has neighborhood associations and neighborhood watches, but it's just good for that area," Bush said. "So people [committing crimes] feel if that's the community being watched, we'll just go to another."
For decades, East Lake Courts, the city's second-oldest public housing site, has been a hot spot for crime, gang activity, random gunfire and death, police and residents acknowledge.
One of the city's first homicides of 2014 occurred in East Lake Courts when 25-year-old Rafael White was shot to death on Sixth Avenue on Jan. 28.
Lawrence and other residents say they've had enough.
Paul Smith said he wants to meet with the residents to learn how he may support them in cutting crime in their area.
Community support is crucial, Smith said. Most of the time police aren't eyewitnesses to crime, but residents are. Just letting people know that you are watching and you intend to report crime will deter some crimes from happening, he said.
Cotter said residents concerned about retaliation don't have to leave a name when reporting crime, giving a description of a car or suspect.
The main thing is not to ignore crime when you see it, he said.
"When people don't report crime, it sends the message that [criminals] can keep doing what they're doing," Cotter said.
Lawrence and Doris Smith, no relation to Paul Smith, were among nearly a dozen East Lake Courts residents who contributed their own money in February to host an appreciation luncheon for the Chattanooga Housing Authority police and city police officers.
The residents encouraged the officers to do all they can to rid their community of crime.
Lawrence said she has heard complaints about police brutality, but many times those claiming that police used excessive force are involved in crime, she said.
"A lot of people say they don't like the police," Lawrence said. "I say I love them because they are taking care of me."
She said older residents could not sit peacefully on their porches in East Lake Courts if police weren't patrolling the area.
Housing authority police Chief Felix Vess said he has no statistics to show whether crime is up or down in the East Lake area. He said officers have been too busy trying to maintain safety to take note, but the truest indicator of neighborhood safety is resident perception.
"From Signal Mountain to Lookout Mountain to East Lake Courts, if residents in any neighborhood have that feeling that something is being done right, then it probably is," Vess said.
Just three years ago some 60 East Lake Courts residents and 80 of their friends and family members signed a petition claiming that three CHA officers were harassing residents and asking that they be fired.
Those officers were included among those honored at the residents' luncheon.
The housing authority took no action against the officers but did bring in community relations training for all officers.
Vess said he was taught to address every person with the respect he would use when addressing his mother.
Doris Smith said she remembers when both city and CHA police officers talked to residents as if they were less than human, but there has been improvement.
Among the Chattanooga police personnel honored was Officer William McMillan.
He was shot multiple times in March 2013 while patrolling near East Lake Courts. He didn't have to come back to the area to work, but Lawrence said she is grateful for his presence.
Lawrence said when certain police officers show up, people involved in crime get out of sight.
"They're cleaning up the community," Lawrence said. "And that's what we want."
Contact Yolanda Putman at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 423-757-6431.