Chattanooga City Councilman Jack Benson battered researchers Thursday for identifying Hamilton Place as a "gang hotspot" in a citywide assessment.
"This does real damage to their business," said the 82-year-old councilman as he leaned forward in his chair. "They didn't know they had a gang problem. I didn't know it."
The City Council met with the Chattanooga Gang Task Force and researchers from the Ochs Center of Metropolitan Studies and the Center for Applied Social Research at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga to review results and highlights of the six-month gang study.
Boyd Patterson, head of the gang task force, defended what the study said, including its judgment of Hamilton Place, which emerged as a gang hotspot in 2010 according to the study.
"This is the best snapshot we have," Patterson said.
The presentation centered on the public's perceptions of gang problems at schools and city recreation centers. But the comments by Benson, whose district includes Hamilton Place, highlighted that the stakes could be even higher for those in the business community.
CBL & Associates Properties, owners of Hamilton Place, objected to including the mall in the study and, in a statement, said the task force should reconsider its findings.
"Our priority is to provide a safe, comfortable and enjoyable shopping experience for our customers and we have security procedures in place," the statement reads. "This includes our youth escort program, which was implemented in 2001."
Benson, who was one of seven council members in February to approve spending $75,000 on the study, said he looked at three years' worth of Chattanooga Police Department crime data from the mall area, and it seems to show that crime appears to be going down.
Mayor Ron Littlefield said CBL can deal with any type of perceived gang activity around the mall, but added that the report needs to include the information.
"It's always going to be sensitive," Littlefield said. "But it's a public place."
Benson said he received calls from CBL about the study after the Chattanooga Times Free Press ran a map on Sunday showing gang hotspots throughout the city.
Council Chairwoman Pam Ladd said the sheer number of businesses in and around Hamilton Place are going to attract crime. But even then, she said, the bad has to come out with the good.
"We have to report data honestly or we don't have a solid study," she said.