A pregnant 16-year-old near East Lake Courts on Tuesday became a victim in Chattanooga's 80th shooting of 2013. The girl suffered nonlife-threatening injuries to her lower back when she was standing outside with a group and someone in a dark SUV fired off shots in broad daylight just before noon in the 2200 block of East 25th Street.
Witnesses said they heard at least five shots, and one resident, Jet Rose, pleaded for help. "We need protection. We fear for our lives," she told a reporter.
The violence -- often blamed on youth street gangs and drug trafficking -- points up the need for more police officers in Chattanooga and more investigative manpower and prosecution to get the bad guys with guns off the streets. It's a need Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke vowed to meet when he unveiled a budget two weeks ago that would fund 40 new police officers to bring the police ranks to 486, a record high. Berke said the city also would pay for a full-time federal prosecutor -- partnering with the U.S. attorney's office of East Tennessee -- to put shooters and drug dealers behind bars for years at a time, not just from one bonding-out exercise to the next.
If national news in the past week is an indicator, that effort may now require some modification to meet changing national policing norms, though Berke doesn't anticipate any big problems, according to a spokesman.
A New York civil rights case ended in a federal court order that ruled New York City's "stop and frisk" policies unconstitutional. The judge found that police there resorted to a "policy of indirect racial profiling" as it increased the number of stops in minority communities. An angry New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg countered that police in the Big Apple have done exactly what the courts and constitution allow to keep the city safe, and killings had dropped to an all-time low of 418 in 2012. The all-time high was 2,245 in 1990.
Then on Monday, U.S. Attorney Gen. Eric Holder -- the boss of federal prosecutors -- added another possible hitch to Chattanooga's plan. Holder said the Justice Department will no longer pursue mandatory minimum sentences for certain low-level, nonviolent drug offenders. Nor will it pursue charges in cases that are better handled by state courts.
The reasons are two-fold: While the entire U.S. population increased by about a third since 1980, the federal prison population has grown by almost 800 percent. And the U.S. simply can't afford to be so "coldly efficient in jailing criminals" while at the same time it "cannot prosecute or incarcerate" its way to becoming safer. Widespread incarceration at all levels is ineffective and unsustainable, totaling $80 billion in 2010 alone. Meanwhile, federal prisons are operating at nearly 40 percent above capacity.
But Holder said violent crime -- such as shootings --will be pursued harder than ever, and in both more productive and preventive ways, including a youth violence prevention summit "to confront the 'school-to-prison pipeline' and those zero-tolerance school discipline policies that do not promote safety, and that transform too many educational institutions from doorways of opportunity into gateways to the criminal justice system."
"A minor school disciplinary offense should put a student in the principal's office and not a police precinct," Holder said.
We agree with that 100 percent. In the first three months of this year, the city's more than 60 shootings involved at least 20 young people under 21, and 14 were Hamilton County students. But only five of those 14 graduated from high school. One died, one went to jail, three were transferred to state youth institutions, one dropped out, another withdrew to Job Corps and two transferred to out-of-state schools.
Nine were D and F students, four were C students, one was an A-B student. Four had records of in-school suspensions and detentions. Five had records of school suspensions, expulsions or orders to alternative schools. Only five had no discipline entries.
The pattern is this: These youths are behind in school, and they eventually leave school, sometimes by their own decisions but sometimes not.
We have to find ways to keep 16-year-olds standing in a group from being injured in drive-by shootings.
And we have to find a way to keep the shooters from taking that violent path.