Gerber: The Toll looks at emotional, societal cost of homicides

The Toll is a new, comprehensive online database covering all Chattanooga homicides since 2011.
photo Alison Gerber

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The toll of homicides in Chattanooga

The toddler who died from a drug overdose after a caretaker put a pain patch on his back.

The middle-aged woman whose body was found headless and handless on the side of a road.

The 75-year-old strangled with a cord from a vacuum cleaner inside her home by a man who police said was angry because she refused to sell him a car.

The 20-year-old shot to death in an attack that also left a 1-year-old paralyzed from the waist down.

They're among the 119 people who were victims of homicides in Chattanooga in the last five years.

When reporting on homicides, we frequently cite statistics: 25 died in Chattanooga in 2011; 24 in 2012; 19 in 2013, 27 in 2014 and 24 so far this year. We report on them annually; we tally deaths in stories whenever another violent killing occurs; we note whether the total numbers are up or down over the last year.

And it's important to note trends and study the numbers. They're necessary to show the scope of the problem. They're needed to document whether efforts to prevent such deaths are actually working.

But it's more than that. It's a way to make us remember that each of these incidents means another human being has died; another parent has lost a child; another family has been devastated.

Starting today, the Times Free Press is adding another way to keep that in mind, and to personalize the people in our community who are victims of violent crime. On the newspaper's digital sites, you'll find The Toll, a public database of all Chattanooga homicide victims dating back to January 2011.

Beyond just names and photos, the site gives details of each death, lists the date and location, offers links to previous stories on the crime. The Toll also tracks the case through the criminal justice system. Who has been arrested? What charges have been filed? Has the case been brought before the grand jury or a judge? If it has, what was the verdict, the sentence?

The site is searchable by the names of suspects and victims. It will be updated whenever a homicide occurs or whenever there's a development in one of the criminal cases.

The Toll is the work of crime reporter Shelly Bradbury, who has spent months assembling the data, photos and story links. Her goal is to show the human toll of continuing violent crime. But it goes far beyond just that. Bradbury's front-page story today looks at the toll of homicides on society - the cost of investigating these crimes and prosecuting the killers, then housing them in prison for years; the cost to a neighborhood or community. And the worst cost, the enormous toll that a sudden, violent death takes on the victim's mom and dad, friends and family.

The photos on The Toll are not uniform. They're not polished, professional shots. Some are fuzzy and out of focus, some are awkwardly cropped. They're snapshots from people's lives. They capture a moment and remind us that the dead are people.

Ultimately, photos and the site show unfinished lives - a young man smiling broadly in a white tuxedo, a teenager huddled with his sister, a woman cuddling a dog, a U.S. Marine whose second child was not yet born when he was shot to death.

These are lives cut short and, each in their own way, they and the lives that took them have cut something from the heart of our community.

You can find The Toll at

Alison Gerber is editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Reach her at or 423-757-6408 and @aligerb.