Waiting on the cavalry

Waiting on the cavalry

August 20th, 2013 in Opinion Times

Chattanooga had three more shootings over the weekend, bringing us to an estimated 85 in 2013.

Surprised? You heard that violent crime is down?

Yes, that's true to a point. Gun murders are even with last year, but nonfatal shootings are way up. But here's why you've only heard that from the Chattanooga Times Free Press. The FBI and police don't count nonfatal shootings as "violent" crime, though it's hard to imagine how much more violent crime can get than being shot -- even if you don't die.

In fact, the FBI, which mandates the types of statistics police departments must track, does not even have a category for nonfatal shootings. That means non-fatal shootings are not tracked anywhere, unless they get tucked into a very lesser assault category. So much for violent crime being down.

But back to Chattanooga, where shootings are up by 42 percent over those logged this time last year.

We know there is a plan being advanced by Mayor Andy Berke to address the growing violence, most of it attributed to youth gangs.

Part of the plan involves former Howard School Principal Paul Smith in the new city position of public safety director. He will coordinate efforts to provide opportunities for at-risk youth, partner with agencies, improve data collection throughout city government, monitor the progress of initiatives and update Berke's staff. Many of those tasks mirror the goals that former Mayor Ron Littlefield's gang task force strove to meet for the year it was in place. Berke disbanded the gang task force, and Smith has just begun his new job.

A second aim to regain control of the streets is to hire 40 new police officers. But thanks to existing police vacancies and expanded city boundaries as a result of annexation, the additional sworn personnel will only bring the ratio of officers to residents to 1-to-352, slightly better than last year when the ratio was 1-to-371.

A third effort is to find a way to control event clubs -- vacant buildings leased out for parties, so as to avoid safety inspections and drink licenses. At least three shootings have occurred at one of these event club locations, but in the months since the event club problem came to light, a council committee has discussed the matter but reached no decision, instead tossing the question back to the city attorney. The attorney has said authorities will "use the laws on the books." If the laws are adequate, why aren't they working?

A fourth effort involves the city paying for a federal prosecutor to take the repeat bad guys off the street by using tougher sentences for violent drug and gang crimes. But the bar on those tougher-sentences prosecutions was raised just weeks ago by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. Now, police and a city-paid U.S. attorney will have to work harder to be sure they have a case that will pass muster for the tougher sentencing standard.

All these points in current city plans are good. But they also all are futuristic. What about now? What are we going to do to stop these shootings while we're waiting for the cavalry?

"My hope is that it's enough," Mayor Berke told Time Free Press staff writer Beth Burger last week. "We have to be smarter. We have to be more effective. We have to be doing the right things. ... If it turns out we need to look at the numbers [of new police and investigators] again to fund our priorities, we certainly will."

He also noted that the department will undergo a management study.

Meanwhile, as of Monday, Chattanooga has had 85 shootings with 100 victims (10 have died) in 2013.

One hundred victims -- mostly young. This time last year, these numbers were 60 shootings with 69 victims. That's a 45 percent increase in victims-- mostly teens and young adults who have been wounded in drive-by shootings, shots fired into crowds and show-downs.

This is not the Wild West. This is not television. This is Chattanooga, Tenn., where we're supposed to be embarking on a sustainable future filled with lots of technology, good jobs and better education.

We ask again: What are we going to do while we're waiting on the cavalry?