Sheriff Jim Hammond announced Monday night at a gang violence meeting that he will place school resource officers in some inner-city elementary schools this fall.
His office will work with a private company, Catholic Charities, and a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga graduate school program to place off-duty deputies and Chattanooga Police Department officers in schools at least eight hours a week.
He said the program particularly will target at-risk black males and provide support like food and advice to parents about finding supportive housing environments.
"We've got the money and we've got the program," he said during the meeting Tuesday night at Hixson Middle School. "We put together a program that we want to launch in beta level in August."
Hammond, Chattanooga Police Chief Bobby Dodd and the two leaders of the city's new violence task force answered questions at a meeting called by County Commissioner Mitch McClure. Task force coordinator Boyd Patterson laid out the basic framework of the comprehensive gang model local and federal agencies are rolling out.
Hammond said elementary school is not too early to work with some students.
"Some people say when you're dealing with a kindergarten child, they're cute and cuddly," Hammond said. But they're also looking for a mentor and are moldable, he said.
Two weeks ago Hammond asked the County Commission to boost his budget by about 8 percent to cover more detectives, equipment and enough deputies to expand the school resource officer program to all the county middle schools.
Though Hammond is pitching his new program as a privately backed pilot, County Commissioner Tim Boyd stood to remind the hundreds of residents who attended that fighting the gang problem will come with a price tag.
"It took 25 years to get to where we are," Boyd said. "This is going to take some time, and it's going to take some money. The sheriff has already warned the commission that he's a couple of million short."
Trish Cox, whose daughter attends Hixson Middle, said she was a founding member of the Domestic Violence Coalition and understood the difficulty of building task forces.
"We've seen task forces come and go," she said. "Do you have the support that you need?"
Dodd said that he thinks the current effort is sustainable, but that the police will still be there "if you don't have the staying power, when the commissions are gone."
Though gang problems have been cyclical for at least 25 years, Dodd said the current group of those involved poses the unique challenge of being the youngest and best armed. He said a core group of about 25 members are wreaking the most havoc for police.
Hixson Middle School Principal Sandy Barnwell said after the meeting that keeping the issue at the forefront is in the community's best interest.
"I think there actually is a plan," she said.
"I can't say that we have a gang here," Barnwell said. "It's hard to identify a gang."
Still, Barnwell said that just recently she had to suspend a student for 10 days because of gang-related concerns.
"A student had an entire page that was filled with gang talk, gang symbols and talked about a gun," she said.