Chattanooga takes different approach to combat gangs

Chattanooga takes different approach to combat gangs

October 30th, 2011 by Beth Burger in News

First responders help a shooting victim roll onto her back Friday night. Three people were shot at the corner of Fifth Avenue and East 31st Street. Chattanooga police arrested six juveniles and an 18-year-old in connection with the attack.

Photo by Jake Daniels /Times Free Press.

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As the number of gang-related homicides in Chattanooga continues to climb, local officials plan to refocus efforts to implement a community plan to combat gangs.

The Hamilton County District Attorney's Office approached Chattanooga and Hamilton County to work together to implement the plan published by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

The plan takes a holistic approach - involving social services, nonprofits, municipalities, schools and law enforcement - to combat gangs rather than relying solely on police to suppress gangs.

A committee was formed in the spring to hire a project director to coordinate efforts between the groups and make reports. The plan also calls for a research organization to conduct an assessment to best learn what the needs are and how to direct services.

Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield said he has interviewed approximately six candidates for the director's position.

He declined to give a salary for the position, stating he didn't want to discourage applicants from applying, and said he did not have a job description available.

"We don't want someone who is going to have to go through a steep learning curve. We want someone who is knowledgable about gangs," Littlefield said. "And quite frankly, I have a lot of people who walk in and who have this magic solution. You listen to it, and it's not a magic solution. It's a very complex problem. It's going to require a lot of systemic changes."

The committee formed to implement the plan consists of Littlefield, Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, City Councilman Jack Benson, County Commissioner Mitch McClure, Chattanooga Police Chief Bobby Dodd, Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond, Hamilton County District Attorney Bill Cox and Assistant District Attorney Boyd Patterson.

The group has met two or three times and tentatively has a meeting scheduled this week. The committee plans to expand its membership as plans become more concrete, according to officials.

The Chattanooga Police Department has been designated as the lead agency, and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga or the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies most likely will conduct the assessment. Staff from UTC was present at one meeting to discuss the assessment.

"The family unit has been destroyed in so many areas of our society. I think the gangs, in one sense, are seen as family replacement for many of these folks," McClure said. "This is not just a city problem. It's a county problem. ... This is something that will radiate to all of Hamilton County if we don't get a handle on it."

Last week, county commissioners discussed passing a resolution asking for state and federal help to form a task force to curtail violence.

Former Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield

Former Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.

The search for the director continues, Littlefield said.

"I don't have a deadline. It's like everything else," he said. "I'm sure people will say, 'They ought to do it right now, right today,' but it's one of those decisions where we don't want to make the wrong decision," Littlefield said.

Dodd said a director will have to be hired soon.

"At one point, you get so far down the road, you don't want to bring someone in and have to go back and start over at square one and have to bring them up to speed," Dodd said. "You get to a point where you need this director to get in place and help direct the flow of everything."

Littlefield said in the meantime, sufficient resources are in place to tackle the city's gang issue until the plan gets under way.

"We're not without resources right now," Littlefield said. "We just don't have a director. We have a group that's working together right now. We have police personnel who are already assigned to the gangs and we have the knowledgable people in the district attorney's office. So all we really don't have is a point person, a go-to point person on this issue."