Gerber: Tackling the gang problem

Gerber: Tackling the gang problem

September 23rd, 2012 by Alison Gerber in Opinion Columns

Seventy-five thousand dollars.

One hundred and seventy-three pages.

Six months of research and assessment.

Nineteen recommendations issued to government, schools and local organizers.

All about gangs.

The assessment on Chattanooga gangs by the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies is certainly comprehensive. But it's more than that. It's extremely frank about the changes that must occur: To battle gangs, the community must attack long-standing economic, social, political and cultural roots that foster gang activity.

What's good: Officials in Chattanooga are serious about taking on gangs, reducing their numbers and making the city safer.

More importantly, the report examines the factors that drive young men into gangs, pointing out that gang recruitment sometimes starts with children as young as 9. It states that UTC research found gang-related kids in all ZIP codes surveyed.

It's also good that officials in this city are willing to admit there's a gang problem. In many cities, mayors and police chiefs stick their heads in the sand and deny that gangs exist. They put the interests of tourism and businesses above the safety of their citizens.

Or they say that they don't have a gang problem; they just have wannabes.

Doesn't matter. Whether they're wannabes or validated gang members, their bullets are real.

What's bad: It's unclear whether this report will spur change or be buried.

Too often, here's how the pattern unfolds: A high-profile shooting occurs and officials hold news conferences, make bold statements, promise to take action.

Then weeks, sometimes months, pass with no high-profile shootings. Talk dies down. The meetings and news conferences stop. Public discussion on the issue comes to a halt. Public awareness dwindles ... until the next high-profile shooting.

And there's always another high-profile shooting.

Hopefully, we won't stop caring about the violence in these neighborhoods, even if they are places we never travel to.

Hopefully, the appetite for solutions will not die. Hopefully, the discussion will not end.

And that's where the Times Free Press comes in. As a newspaper, we are a forum for public discussion, a place for information to be disseminated and solutions suggested.

To that end, the Times Free Press is planning to host a roundtable discussion on gangs. We will invite the usual people, the decision-makers, the people in suits or those wearing a gun at their hip.

We will also invite the folks who experience gangs on a street level, those who try to keep kids from taking a path that could lead to a jail cell or a grave. Those who try their mightiest to make sure kids don't skip school. Those working at city recreation centers and on ball fields to give troubled kids something else to do besides hustling. The pastors who try to get kids to choose right over wrong.

It's not that the police officers and other law enforcers are not doing their job; many risk their own safety in the fight against gang violence. But, as the gang assessment shows, they cannot do it alone.

In a February story, Times Free Press reporter Beth Burger pointed out a chilling statistic: The number of Chattanooga gang members is more than double the number of sworn police officers.

Business leaders, neighbors, teachers, nonprofit workers and parents all must have a hand in this. And change will come one child at a time.

Unless all aspects of society continue to care about curbing violence in our city - and that includes the newspaper - the gang problem will be here to stay.

Alison Gerber is the managing editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Reach her at agerber@timesfreepress.com. Send suggestions to readerfeedback@timesfree press.com.