Given the nature of their work and public interest in their remarks, elected officials are bound to make embarrassing gaffes from time to time. But they're most likely to stray far over the line of civility -- and into inflammatory meanness -- when they're trying to show how tough they are. Recent comments by Sheriff Jim Hammond and state Rep. Richard Floyd fall in that category.
Sheriff Hammond hit that note in a talk to the Brainerd Kiwanis about how the rising level of gang violence, which in Chattanooga at the moment is mainly associated with young black males.
"We need to run them out of town, put them in jail, or send them to the funeral home," he said. Though he did cover the broader need for intervention and social programs, his reference, essentially, about shooting to kill and bury young gang members reasonably elicited earnest and well justified criticism from Chattanooga Police Chief Bobby Dodd and former city detective Napoleon Williams, a community advocate for intervention to help steer young males away from gangs.
Dodd, whose police department carries the bulk of the work, and personal risk, of quelling mounting gang violence, rightly pointed out that violence needs to be reduced -- not aggravated -- by heated political rhetoric that might simply provoke deadly gunfights .
"Prevention and intervention are keys to stemming the steady flow of young men joining the gangs in the first place," he said. "Stop this steady flow and we stop the violence." Though the department has assistance from parents, churches and community organizations, he said his department's resources are already overburdened with the task of "suppression and prosecution in an attempt to keep the violence in check. ... It's time for the lip service to stop."
He's right. With an estimated 1,100 members in 44 documented gangs, the police department has its hands full. No good can from the county sheriff -- whose officers customarily do not patrol inside municipal boundaries -- carelessly talking tough about resorting to shoot-to-kill tactics. Police have already come under fire from suspected gang members. Fueling the risk-taking bravado that compels them to join gangs is a grave mistake.
If Sheriff Hammond wants to help reduce gang violence, he should initiate a state legislative campaign -- in Tennessee and other negligent southern states -- to stem easy access to guns by requiring background checks for gun purchases at our wide-open gun shows, and for sales through personal advertising. Until this totally unregulated gun-running sewer is closed, gang members will have guaranteed access to guns.
Rep. Floyd's caustic remarks came when he described why he had introduced a bill in the Legislature to prohibit a transgender male from trying on women's clothing in a store, and require them to use bathrooms matched to their birth gender. If he saw a man dressed as woman going into a dressing where his wife and daughter were, he declared, "I'd just try to stomp a mudhole in him, and then stomp him dry."
Apparently unaware of the medical science about transgender issues and the unfortunate physical circumstances that sometimes require physicians to make assignments of sex to infants at birth, Floyd plowed on: "Don't ask me to adjust to their perverted way of thinking and put my family at risk. We cannot continue to let these people dominate how society acts and reacts."
Floyd's comments reasonably ignited criticism from LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] advocates of fair treatment, who are already angry about the Legislature's passage of a discriminatory state law that prohibits Tennessee natives from amending their gender on birth certificates, even after undergoing operations to change gender. Subsequent national blogs lambasted Tennessee and Floyd, who said he got the idea for his bill from a news story about Texas woman being fired from Macy's for stopping a male teen dressed as a woman from using a dressing room.
Fortunately, the version of Floyd's bill in the state senate was yanked by Sen. Bo Watson, an early co-sponsor who said he now favors an agenda free of needless distractions. Floyd should take a cue from that.