For calm on the riverfront

For calm on the riverfront

March 23rd, 2011 in Opinion Times

Chattanooga's riverfront served as the center of the city's renaissance more than 20 years ago, and it has remained the symbolic and functional heart of the city's rejuvenation. It came to be known as the city's "front porch." It spawned the sentiment and the revitalization that produced the rescue and re-creation of the Walnut Street Bridge as the city's pedestrian link both to the river and to the North Shore. And it nurtured succeeding successes from the ashes of blight: the Tennessee Aquarium, the Riverwalk to Chickamauga Dam, Coolidge and Renaissance parks, the Lookouts overlook stadium, the Bluff View arts district, and the city's night life and attendant urban redevelopment and residential revival.

For our present and future civic interests and for the future of our young people, all this is too vital a legacy to jeopardize by adopting a divisive law that would prevent the city's youth from enjoying the warm weather days and memories with their friends at the riverside that will bind them to their hometown. Rather, we need to provide our more neglected youth more constructive opportunities, to entice them to stay and to contribute to the city's workforce and civic infrastructure.

The ordinance proposed by Mayor Ron Littlefield Monday and considered by the City Council last night, to be sure, will attract considerable support. It would bar from Coolidge Park minors who are not supervised by adults. It comes on the heels of a second flash-mob of young people - the one last Saturday night was preceded by a similar event on Mar. 28 last year - where a large fight occurred and gunshots rang.

The flash-mob last year - similarly generated by a wave of text messages that quickly drew a virtually spontaneous crowd - ended with five young people being wounded in the legs by random gunfire. The incidence last Saturday night produced a crowd of around 300, a fight and some gunfire, but no one was found to be wounded. Both could have ended far more tragically.

The gunfire at each spurred a rush away from the park, and rapid police intervention helped control the aftermath. After Saturday night's incidence, city officials are reasonably concerned and want to take steps to prevent similar occurrences in the future. They also are alarmed at reports that minor children, some as young as eight, were dropped off at Coolidge Park and left to fend for themselves.

In this circumstance, Mayor Littlefield, City Council members and police officials are understandably rushing to accomplish reasonable goals. They want to calm potential concerns about public safety downtown and at the riverfront, and to ensure public safety, and they want to seize control of a youth-related dynamic that easily could worsen, and easily end in serious injuries and needless deaths.

According to witnesses of Saturday's incident, the youthful crowd included some who were members of both the Bloods and the Crips gangs, which are prevalent in some inner city neighborhoods and are believed to the cause of ongoing gang and drug-related violence.

Few would dispute the city's goals. The immediate issue, however, is whether a ban on unsupervised minors at Coolidge Park is a viable or feasible tactic. There are some problems: What is the legal definition of a supervising adult, or a legal guardian? Young people are considered under the law as adults at the age of 18: Would teenagers of 18 or 19 be considered as competent adult supervisors or guardians of younger juveniles? What would be the criteria for "supervision"? What would be the consequences of violating the ordinance? How would it be enforced?

If enforcement would require a complement of officers on regular patrol, wouldn't it be better, and fairer, to provide a regular show of adequate police force at the park, and adequate rapid-response back-up, to suppress trouble, while still allowing well-behaving youth to enjoy the city's premier park?

These are pertinent questions. The idea of a monolithic ban against use of the park by unsupervised young people less than 18 years old strikes us a sledge-hammer approach to relatively infrequent problem, when the root problem in the first place is a lack of adult supervision and constructive home and community-based activities.

As Police Chief Bobby Dodd said Monday, "We can't arrest our way out of this (problem)." If that's so, how can the police or the city use a ban that would itself require vigorous enforcement if the city doesn't tackle the root problem first with focused intervention in troubled neighborhoods?