Chattanooga: Minors face Coolidge Park ban

Chattanooga: Minors face Coolidge Park ban

March 22nd, 2011 by Beth Burger in News

Chattanooga Chief Bobby Dodd speaks to the media at the Police Service Center about a recent disturbance at Coolidge Park as Mayor Ron Littlefield, right, looks on. The Chattanooga Police unveiled new measures to keep Coolidge Park safe.

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Minors will no longer be allowed in Coolidge Park unless they are accompanied by an adult, Chattanooga officials say.

The new rule is in response to an incident in the park Saturday, when shots rang out in a crowd of about 300 youths, and builds on a response to a similar incident almost exactly a year ago.

No one was injured Saturday, but five people - three adults and two juveniles - were hit with bullets on March 27, 2010, although none of the injuries were life-threatening.

"We can't arrest out way out of this. There's just no way," said Chattanooga Police Chief Bobby Dodd at a news conference Monday. "If I had 200 officers in that crowd that night, you have 300 to 400 people; someone fires off a shot. You've got a mob running.

"Two hundred officers couldn't have controlled it or stopped it from happening," he said, "but we are going to put the resources in there to regulate it."

An unsupervised 8-year-old child was at Coolidge Park on Saturday when the fight erupted Mayor Ron Littlefield noted at the news conference.

"Where were you at?" Dodd asked. "Where were your children at? Who's responsible for these children?"

No one was arrested in connection to the shooting, but an air pellet gun was recovered nearby, police said.

Two people were arrested on unrelated charges, including 18-year-old Alex Wilson, who was picked up on a charge of disorderly conduct, police said. A 16-year-old male faces a similar charge, according to police, and his name is not being released because he is a juvenile.

police changes

After last year's incident, officers now work overtime in the park for $29 per hour, Dodd said, and there also are two officers who normally work that area as well as park rangers.

Police began placing five extra officers within the park, Dodd said, and after Saturday, it's likely that number will jump to 10. Increased patrol will include bike patrols and vehicle patrols as well as officers walking around the park grounds, he said.

Currently, the extra law enforcement costs city taxpayers about $1,500 per weekend, he said.

Over the past few years, the police have responded to the park an average of 31 incidents per year, according to police records dating back to 2007. So far this year, there have been a total of three calls to Coolidge Park, records show.

Dodd described Saturday's incident as a "flash mob," the same phrase Littlefield to describe last year's shooting in the park.

Authorities said the both incidents developed after local youth communicated via social media such as Facebook and Twitter and gathered in parking lots adjacent to Coolidge Park with a crowd between 250 to 400 juveniles to watch a fight.

At one point, someone brandished a gun - possibly a .38-caliber revolver - and fled the scene when nearby officers responding from within the park to the parking lots. There were already officers on scene because police received tips that a fight would take place over the weekend.

Officers on scene radioed for back up, and a total of 18 officers responded, officials said.

Police are still sifting through video footage from surveillance cameras in the park, but they say it's unlikely any of it will be usable because of low light.

At Monday's news conference, officials spoke of installing bright lights the park in case it needs to be cleared quickly.

Larry Zehnder, city administrator for parks and recreation, said since the shooting incident last year, less than $10,000 was spent in upgrades to the park, including surveillance cameras and improved lighting. It's likely more money will be spent to improve safety, he said.

On average, the park has 30 to 40 special events every year that attract a total of between 70,000 to 80,000 people, he said.

While last year's fight started over an argument over who gave someone a sexually transmitted disease, Dodd said he doesn't know what prompted this year's fight.

Officials said it's likely there were gang members in the crowd, the fight itself does not appear to be gang-related, officials said.

"People should assume the park is safe because we're absolutely committed to making it safe and keeping it safe," Littlefield said. "These two incidents a year apart should not characterize what people think of Coolidge Park.

"We do not want to diminish the appeal of the park," he said. "We don't want to appear to be an armed camp. We don't think that's necessary. We do think it's necessary for people to properly behave and take responsibility for the young people."

Philip Grymes, executive director of Outdoor Chattanooga, which is located in Coolidge Park, said Saturday's incident may keep people away from the park at night, but generally most people seem to feel safe during the day.

"This is a different place at night," he said. "I used to be, 'Oh, I really don't believe that.' Unfortunately, I think that really is the case.

"The thing I don't want to see us the reactionary - 'We're just going to ban all teens. Nobody can be in here after 8 p.m.' I think that will be a lot of people's kneejerk reaction."

David Smotherman, president of the North Shore Merchants Collective, which has about 52 businesses as members, said it's a challenging issue because the crowds gather and disperse so quickly.

It's possible the park could close earlier or the city could require permits for people who gather in than groups of more than 30 people, said Smotherman, owner of Winder Binder Gallery and Book Store on Frazier Avenue.

"I don't know if that's a solution to that. ... Part of me hates too much regulation of anything," he said.

There are no plans to close the park early, according to officials. The park opens at 7 a.m. and closes at 11 p.m.

Contact staff writer Beth Burger at bburger@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6406.