Keeping the peace

Keeping the peace

November 28th, 2010 by Todd South in News

Staff Photo by Allison Carter/Chattanooga Times Free Press - Nov 18, 2010 - In Avondale, a man waits in handcuffs while members of the crime suppression unit check to discover if there is a warrant out for his arrest.

Investigator Kevin Trussell steered his police cruiser along the curb near where two young men and an older woman stood.

The policeman waved the woman over, and she came to the car window.

"Oh, you miss me?" she said, smiling.

"You get all your court stuff taken care of?" Trussell asked.

"Yeah, I appreciate what you did," she said.

"You know where [suspect name] is at?" he asked.

"Nah," she said; then she paused, looking around.

Trussell knew this might not be the best time to ask more questions.

"All right. I'll see you later," he said.

"OK," she said, walking back to the porch as Trussell drove away.

It's the same porch where in March two juveniles were shot, one hit in the foot, the other in the leg as they ran from the gunfire.

Trussell spends his days and many nights cruising Chattanooga's streets with his teammates in the city police department's crime suppression unit.

"You have to be able to know who has the information on the street," he explained.

"Those are the people you kind of have to garner a relationship with. Because in the end you might need them one day," Trussell said. "You might need them to tell you who shot who."

Not every contact is pleasant, and not everyone is happy to see the officers. Through the rest of the afternoon shift, Trussell helped fellow investigator Aaron Patterson on a warrant arrest in which the suspect gave a false name and a traffic stop in which police believed the driver swallowed a bag of marijuana. Those men went to jail.

During a drive through one neighborhood, Trussell spotted a man in an orange sweatshirt who ran away when he saw the patrol car. A call from another officer kept Trussell from learning why.

But as often as possible, officers work to improve their relationships with people close to the street, as well as with community leaders.

The next night those relationships were tested. Trussell, Patterson and officers from various divisions worked through the night and into the dawn tracking information after a Nov. 19 shooting at a Pawnee Trail home sent a bullet to the head of 22-year-old Jermichael Richardson. He died later from the wound.

Crime Suppression Unit statistics

Year / Total Arrests / Drug arrests / Guns seized

2007* / 226 / 86 / 13

2008 / 321 / 120 / 24

2009 / 421 / 138 / 65

2010** / 888 / 226 / 70

*From June to December

**From January to mid-November

Source: Chattanooga Police Department

That shooting triggered a string of reprisals by opposing gangs, police said. Community tips helped lead police to arrest Devante Stoudemire, 18, on Nov. 21 and charge him with criminal homicide in Patterson's death. The next day police got reports that two to three men drove by 1913 Foust St. firing at Omerrieal Woods, 20, hitting him in the buttocks as he fled.

Homicide detectives lead murder and most shooting investigations, but the crime suppression unit goes out into the streets collecting leads to pass back to the detectives.

"A lot of it is in the way we talk to people," Trussell said of building trust with residents and especially, known gang members. "We don't automatically treat them like a criminal because information is our best friend, and we gladly accept it."

Origin

Since its inception three years ago, the unit has more than doubled the number of arrests it makes each year. As of August, just five officers had taken nearly 170 guns off the streets and made more than 3,000 contacts with gang members.

Underscoring his belief in the effectiveness of the unit, Police Chief Bobby Dodd doubled its manpower in August, about a month after he took over the department.

The unit formed in June 2007 with just four officers. Dodd said he and Lt. Edwin McPherson saw the need for a small unit focused on crime hot spots but didn't want to narrow it to only gangs.

At the time Dodd was an assistant chief over the investigation division. He and McPherson sat down with then-Chief Freeman Cooper to sell the idea.

Patrol officers, inundated with issues ranging from speeders, noise complaints and domestic violence calls, rarely had the time to spend on building relationships with residents, Dodd said.

A specialized unit wasn't a new concept. Dodd said that in the past police leaders had formed "jump-out squads" or "spot teams" that tackled a crime-ridden area until activity slowed.

Instead of tying the unit to one area, Dodd and McPherson wanted to recruit members from different parts of the city and keep them mobile. Today, each of the officers has authority to work anywhere in the county and is not tied to one area of the city. They can work alongside Hamilton County Sheriff's deputies outside city limits and target any area of crime.

Unit investigators work everything from burglaries to DUIs to gang-on-gang violence, unlike officers in other divisions who focus on either a specific zone of the city or a type of crime, he said.

That flexibility helps each of the divisions.

Last week, the unit was involved in a 65-officer multiagency gang roundup dubbed "Operation Gangsgiving." Dodd reassigned the 10-officer team to work directly with investigators from patrol, fugitive, narcotics and property crimes during the operation.

"It's going to be [kept up] for a while, until we get a handle on it," Dodd said. "I'm just sick and tired of these little thugs running around here deciding when they want to create chaos in our city."

The one-day "Gangsgiving" operation netted 36 arrests -- 20 of whom were gang members -- 49 warrants served, five guns seized, 38 grams of marijuana and 2 grams of cocaine confiscated.

Resources

The police information network can be likened to an octopus -- one central brain, with tentacles stretching out to all areas of the city and county pulling pieces back to filter and use later.

Chattanooga police and the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office share information on known gang members, their affiliates, criminal histories, work places and disputes.

Lt. Van Hinton heads the county's recently formed gang task force, which works most closely with the city's unit. The five-officer county unit mirrors the suppression unit in some ways but differs in others.

Some of the deputies work undercover, and the unit falls under the department's narcotics division, as gang crimes and drugs often show up together.

"We find ourselves communicating daily and working throughout the week as well," Hinton said of work between the units.

More and more often, Hinton said, police will find a gang member living in the county but working in the inner city, or vice versa. Teaming up the two units helps police better track their operations.

"What it does is put us on the same playing field," Hinton said. "It gives us the ability to call the city immediately when something happens, or for them to call us immediately."

So when a new face suddenly shows up in their area, deputies can tap into the city's knowledge and find out if the person has a criminal history. It works the same the other way, he said.

Since the city's unit formed, gang contacts -- instances where police officers have communicated with a known gang member -- have increased from about 100 to more than 3,000.

Increased contacts do not necessarily mean new gang members but instead multiple meetings with individual gang members.

In the case of a gang-related shooting, the network runs quickly, trying to get fresh information not only to catch the person responsible but also to anticipate who might try to retaliate and to try to prevent more shootings, Trussell said.

Street-level contacts like the one Trussell had with the woman near his patrol car are one way officers learn what's going on in neighborhoods. Another is complaints or calls from residents.

Though the unit moves inside the entire city, some areas need more help than others. East Chattanooga warrants more attention at times, and some Glenwood residents have used their neighborhood groups to share information with the unit.

"You can kind of see the immediate effects of police work," Glenwood Neighborhood Association President Tommy Diller said.

Diller has lived in the neighborhood for eight years and worked closely with the association for four. Though he doesn't talk directly with unit members, he passes along community complaints to Lt. Brian Cotter, who works with the East Chattanooga Weed and Seed program. The federal grant program funds overtime pay for additional officers in East Chattanooga.

Trussell and Patterson worked in the program before coming to the crime suppression unit and still assist the area when they learn of crime complaints.

The Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies 2010 Public Safety report shows that between 2005 and 2009, reported drug offenses decreased in the Glenwood/Eastdale neighborhood by 26 percent, slightly better than the entire city's decline of 24 percent.

The same report shows a 4 percent decrease in aggravated assaults and a 2 percent decrease in simple assaults, but a 34 percent increase in burglaries for the same period in the neighborhood.

Diller said seeing results after residents share information has helped strengthen the association and, by his observation, made the neighborhood safer.

"Once you get to know the police on a personal level and know that they do care ... I guess it empowers the residents to be a little more proactive," he said.