Comment about gangs earns Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond praise, flak

photo Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond

Remarks by Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond at a civic club have sparked debate about how the gang problem should be dealt with and perception of youth caught up in gang activity.

"We need to run them out of town, put them in jail or send them to the funeral home," Hammond told the Brainerd Kiwanis Club on Friday.

Napoleon "Donut" Williams, who was the city's first black detective in 1968, said the sheriff chose his words poorly.

"Jim, bad choice of words by saying that," he said. "This is black-on-black crime. What we are trying to do is change the image of these kids. For him to talk about going to a funeral home, that's murder. We're trying to save them if we can save them."

Hammond said he received "overwhelming support" for what he told Kiwanis Club members, even though there has been some backlash since then. Some black ministers criticized his comments, saying he advocates "killing their kids," Hammond said.

His message, he said, was to emphasize the need to be tough on crime. While he stands by the statement, he followed it up at the Kiwanis luncheon by saying that steps to prevent kids from getting into gangs in the first place also are needed.

"I never mentioned any groups of kids in particular," Hammond said Monday. "We will confront them and use whatever force is necessary to stop them. If they want to shoot back, we'll have to deal with it."

Steve Jacoway, program chairman for Brainerd Kiwanis, said Hammond's statements "certainly caught my attention, but I didn't think he was giving the green light to tell police officers to take matters into [their] hands."

"He was careful to point out they have had a full, complete approach to deal with problems and keep youth out [of gangs] at an early age," Jacoway said.

The county does not deal with the vast majority of the gang issues, which mostly fall to the Chattanooga Police Department. City police have documented an estimated 44 gangs and 1,100 members. The Hamilton County Jail routinely has about one-fifth of its estimated 500-man population made up of gang members, said Hamilton County Lt. Gene Coppinger.

Chattanooga Police Chief Bobby Dodd said violence needs to be reduced, not elevated with political rhetoric. In the past month, there already have been a couple incidents where assailants either brandished a gun or fired on city officers.

"Prevention and intervention are keys to the stemming steady flow of young men joining the gangs in the first place. Stop this steady flow and we stop the violence," Dodd said.

"The Chattanooga Police Department works hard every day to intervene, and prevent gang violence without much help from the parents, support agencies, or churches, etc.," he said. "We end up spending all of our resources on suppression and prosecution in an attempt to keep the violence in check. ... Time for the 'lip service' to stop."

Williams is part of a task force formed about a year ago comprised of members of local law enforcement and the faith-based community, including the Rev. Kevin Adams with Olivet Baptist Church, to reach out to gang members.

"We all meet whenever an incident happens," Williams said. "We all talk about it and see what we can do. We've been successful in doing that with some of them."

Hammond said he hopes to soon start placing school resource officers in elementary schools instead of placing them only in middle schools and high schools. His plans, he said, are to begin the new school resource program at Calvin Donaldson Elementary at the beginning of the next school year, giving officers a chance to work an extra job in uniform to mentor urban at-risk children.

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