A Hamilton County assistant district attorney who in two weeks will become project coordinator for a communitywide gang project emphasized the positive focus of the group's work Thursday.
"You can't frame this as an anti-gang initiative. It has got to be something positive. That's what we are doing," Boyd Patterson said during a meeting with city and county leaders and a couple of pastors.
Patterson talked about programs in the early stages here, such as graffiti abatement and youth business programs, and the idea of police crackdowns when there is a gang shooting.
The gang project's motto will be "The future is ours," he said.
"'The future is ours.' That's something the kids need to understand. The future is theirs," Patterson said.
But before those programs are launched, the city still has to find a way to pay for an assessment of resources already in place and to complete focus groups to determine community members' perceptions of gangs.
"This [assessment] is something that needs to happen now," Patterson said.
The city has explored using a research partner though the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies or the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's Social Sciences Department. The assessment is estimated to cost $60,000 to $75,000.
Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield has proposed using money set aside for minority businesses to fund the assessment.
Kimberly Porter, a research associate with the Tallahassee, Fla.-based National Gang Center, said in a telephone interview that the assessment is essential.
"It clearly defines what the problem is. It clearly defines what's in the community to address those issues. It helps the community to focus resources to address the gaps that exist in services," she said.
In most communities, the assessment can take as little as six months to complete, she added.
"If you use a research partner, they put all of that together for you and analyze the crime data," Porter said. "Law enforcement information can only give you part of the picture. Particularly in Chattanooga, where it's an emerging gang issue, you have a population that may not be involved in the legal system yet, but they are in the beginning stages."
The people who see these individuals "are the community members, teachers in schools and students," she said.
Fruits of meetings
City and county leaders began meeting nearly a year ago to discuss gangs and youth violence. Since February, as many as 24 people have been killed and as many as 92 shootings have been reported. Last year, more than half the city's homicides were gang-related, according to authorities.
Nearly two weeks ago, 10 people were wounded in Christmas Eve and Christmas morning shootings that police called gang-related.
The gang task force was expanded to include the Rev. Ronnie Bullard of First Baptist of Washington Hills, the Rev. Kevin Adams of Olivet Baptist Church, Eastern District U.S. District Attorney Bill Killian, FBI Special Agent Ed Galloway and Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith.
Killian said the initiative will require all agencies to cooperate and share intelligence.
"The collaboration is key. We got complacent in that regard, we at the federal level, we at the state level and local level, about the sharing of information. It's now critical. This problem is now bigger than all of us," Killian said. "The days of saying, 'We'll just let law enforcement take care of it' are over."
Bullard said it's crucial to provide job programs and other services to help gang members who want to make positive changes in their lives.
"We have gang members who have actually hung up their colors, but we had nowhere to place them," he said.
"As far as Washington Hills community is concerned, I didn't have an outlet to help that child come out of the gang and not go back in. I'm on board for this model. Not only am I on board, but I'm praying God will bless this model."