When Gov. Bill Haslam signs an anti-gang bill just passed by the Legislature, Chattanooga investigators and prosecutors will be able to start building cases to send away some of the most violent gang members, officials say.
At a news conference Wednesday, local officials said they hope gang violence will decline now that the state's RICO, or Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations, law encompasses gang members.
Rep. Vince Dean, R-East Ridge, who sponsored the bill in the House, said the law will give authorities better tools to go after gangs.
"It's kind of like going from a screwdriver to an electric drill," he said.
Mayor Ron Littlefield said that, while the law would not be an "instant cure," it would be part of the solution in dealing with a "systemic problem."
Chattanooga Police Chief Bobby Dodd said he anticipates RICO cases will be rare but effective when they are made.
The law requires prosecutors to prove people in gangs are committing crimes in the interest of the gang, said Boyd Patterson, who is one of the city's project coordinators in charge of implementing a federal anti-gang plan. Just membership in a criminal street gang is not enough to prosecute someone, he said.
A gang must have at least three members who either have two felony convictions or three misdemeanor convictions, he said.
Hamilton County is expected to allocate funds to create a full-time gang prosecutor position.
"To me it's a win-win situation. We've got the law on the books on the federal system," Dodd said. "These things take years and years to develop. The only difference is this will be done at the state level and we won't have to jump through all the hoops."
The city lobbied local legislators to introduce the bill, which alters existing laws to incorporate criminal street gangs into the state's racketeering law. Currently, the law includes only child pornography and drug trafficking, but once Haslam signs the recent bill, it will be expanded to include the prosecution of criminal street gangs.
Gang members would be tried under the law, making it possible to give them longer sentences and higher fines.
Last year, more than half of the city's 25 homicides were gang related. The city has documented an estimated 1,100 gang members in Chattanooga.