Chattanooga gangs keeping jailers busier

Chattanooga gangs keeping jailers busier

November 26th, 2011 by Beth Burger in News

This photo of a Gangster Disciple tattoo was taken by Bradley County Corrections staff.


Ninety varieties of criminal street gangs have been documented at the Hamilton County Jail.

The number varies from the 44 gangs documented by the Chattanooga Police Department because not all inmates reside in the Chattanooga area.

26: Crip sets

21: Blood sets

5: Vice Lords sets

5: Gangsta Disciple sets

8: Hispanic gangs

2: Asian gangs

9: Hate groups

5: Outlaw motorcycle gangs

9: Hybrid gangs

Source: Hamilton County Jail

Maybe it's a tattoo of a six-point star or a Teutonic thunderbolt.

Perhaps it's the observations of a patrol officer transporting an inmate.

But in both cases, it prompts jail officials to ask: "Are you a gang member?"

"Something has to happen to bring it to our attention that this person is a person of interest," said Hamilton County Sheriff's Office Lt. Gene Coppinger, a corrections security supervisor at the county jail who has been watching gang members get booked in for at least a decade.

The number of inmates who are gang members is growing within the Hamilton County Jail, which houses about 500 inmates.

On any given day in 2010, on average there were 98 gang members in custody. So far in 2011, the average is 102 -- nearly one-fifth of the jail population.

State law defines a gang as three or more people in an ongoing organization that commits crimes.

Coppinger, who is also on the executive board of the Tennessee Gang Investigators Association, said the openness of inmates admitting gang membership has changed over the years.

"They would come in, and they bragged. They were proud of being a gang member," he said. "Now they come in and they don't give us that information readily."

According to Chattanooga Police Department figures, an estimated 1,100 gang members have been documented in the city. That's up from 100 in 1997, according to newspaper archives.

"In the neighborhoods, I've heard it's not a matter of, 'Did I necessarily want to join?' It's either 'I'm one of them or I'm an enemy to them,'" Coppinger said.

In recent years, Bradley County also has become aware of the gang problem and has begun tracking gang members at the jail.

"It's definitely growing, and I think it's a little more developed than what we see," said Bradley County Sheriff's Office Corrections Sgt. Jason Brock.

At capacity, the Bradley County Jail holds 408 inmates. This week, the population was at 365. On average, there are about 30 gang members at the jail, Brock said.

The most prevalent gang members are from the Gangsta Disciples -- whose symbol includes a six-pointed star -- and hate groups such as Aryan Nation. There have been 14 hate groups documented, including white supremacists, he said.

The Teutonic thunderbolt is one of the symbols used by the white supremacy movement and was used by the Nazi SS corps in World War II.

Since the Bradley County list formally began in about 2007, 445 gang members have been documented at the facility, he said.

There are no legal consequences to being a gang member.

"If they come in and say, 'I'm a gang member,' it's not illegal in the state of Tennessee to be a gang member," Coppinger said. "You can be a gang member. Obviously, you're going to be a person of interest when you enter my walls, but as long as you follow the rules of the facility you're going to be treated like any other inmate."

Neutral Territory

It takes about eight staff members at the Hamilton County Jail to move inmates and keep gang members away from each other.

"It's a full-time job. It's a constant shell game of moving people here and moving people there to try to keep that balance," Coppinger said. "Regardless of the gang problem here, you have eight, 10, 12 people locked up together. And sooner or later, they are going to get on each other's nerves."

The city has had 23 homicides so far this year. Of those, 65 percent were gang-related, according to Chattanooga police.

Gang members charged in a crime against a rival gang present a challenge for jail workers.

"They've killed or disrespected in some way a member of another gang," Coppinger said. "When they come into jail, that other gang is out to get them."

POLL: Do you worry about becoming a victim of gang violence?

But jail rivalries are different from those on the outside.

"Since they are in custody, they no longer have all of their home boys around to protect them. They don't have weapons. They are all not toting. They aren't as brave," Coppinger said. "They aren't as bad as they were out on the street with 20 of their friends riding in five carloads around town. They aren't in their own neighborhood where they know they can run, where the guns are stashed, things like that."

Ninety criminal street gangs have been documented at the Hamilton County Jail, but that doesn't reflect the number of gangs entrenched in the community -- 44 gangs, according to Chattanooga police data.

Gang members who do not live in the area sometimes get arrested here, Coppinger said.

The total at the jail includes 26 Crip sets, 21 Blood sets and nine hate groups. Hybrid gangs, similar to neighborhood cliques with some characteristics of organized street gangs, also are on the rise, he said. The gangs allow members to be in national or local gangs. Often, they are school based, according to Chattanooga police.

"If something happens out on the street, then it overflows into the facility," Coppinger said.

Gang Criteria

Hamilton and Bradley counties classify jailed gang members with Tennessee Department of Correction system criteria, which operate on a point system. When 10 points are reached, the inmate is classified as a gang member, Brock said. For example, gang-related tattoos are worth eight points.

Bradley County Corrections Sgt. Jason Brock describes a point system used to classify gang members in custody.

Bradley County Corrections Sgt. Jason Brock describes a...

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

"I tell them I use [the classification] to control conflict in the facility and not to house rivals around each other," he said.

Both Coppinger and Brock noted that gangs are less organized in East Tennessee, as compared with other cities in the state, as alliances are often formed between members of different gangs.

Coppinger said gang members will do whatever benefits them at the local jail, unlike at state and federal prisons, where gangs are highly organized.

And there still are gang members in jail who remain undocumented.

"The ones who are the most worrisome are the ones we don't know about. They aren't going to tell us anything," Coppinger said.

Bradley County is seeing an influx of gang members moving into the region, Brock said.

"We have a lot of locals that we deal with, but we also have a large number of members who have moved from other areas to try and get off the radar. There's more in here I don't know about," he said.

There are about four people at the Bradley County Sheriff's Office who track gang members, Brock said, but they also have other responsibilities and document gang members as time allows.

"This is a bigger problem than we know about," Brock said. "It's something that we're going to have to open our eyes to and face."