District Attorney Neal Pinkston honored by Chattanoooga-Hamilton County NAACP

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Hamilton County District Attorney General Neal Pinkston gives his opening statement to the jury before Judge Andrew Freiberg during Tim Boyd's extortion trial in Judge Don Poole's courtroom in the Hamilton County-Chattanooga Courts Building on Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2018 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston has been awarded the local NAACP's Thurgood Marshall Award in the area of law enforcement for civil rights and community activism.

Chattanooga-Hamilton County NAACP President Elenora Woods said Pinkston, the first white recipient of the award, received the honor Saturday because he's made tough, unpopular decisions to prosecute police misconduct and used the state's racketeering law to clean up crime in majority-black neighborhoods. In a news release Monday, Woods said there's been less "visible" gang-related activity since Chattanooga was ranked the 23rd most dangerous place to live in 2016, adding that Pinkston's office has prosecuted "most of the more dangerous criminals."

"Drive by shootings were all too common and murder rates were at an all-time high," Woods said in the release, adding that black men and women were often the victims of these crimes. "Innocent children's lives were taken and helpless mothers were murdered at the hands of those participating in organized crimes."

Woods said Pinkston also gave an update Saturday on two cases of alleged police brutality that he forwarded to the U.S. Department of Justice and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, respectively, in December 2018 and January: Those investigations involving Hamilton County Sheriff's Office deputy Blake Kilpatrick and Chattanooga Police Department officer Benjamin Piazza remain ongoing.

Indeed, Pinkston's office secured a mass indictment in March 2018 against 55 men and women for allegedly committing crimes on behalf of the Athens Park Bloods street gang; it was the first use of the state's gang racketeering law and the number of defendants is now at 53. Pinkston charged eight men in six previously unsolved homicides, including the May 2016 slaying of state witness Bianca Horton and the January 2014 fatal shooting of a 14-year-old boy, Deontrey Southers. The Times Free Press previously reported that local FBI agents have been surveilling and gathering information on alleged members of this group since 2014.

It's unclear how Pinkston's case is going to impact violence in Chattanooga, as it remains ongoing. Some defense attorneys have critiqued Pinkston's Athens Park prosecution for charging people who either don't have connections to the gang anymore or who are being held accountable for other people's crimes. Community leaders and citizens shared their criticisms with Pinkston's prosecution during a public forum and others, like Chattanooga activist Marie Mott, previously said law enforcement uses black men and women in dangerous ways to achieve these kinds of prosecutions without the city offering much of a hand up.

Since 2016, gang-related violence and the number of shooting victims have decreased in Chattanooga. Gang-related shooting victims jumped from 90 in 2015 to 107 in 2016 before falling to 75 in 2017 and 37 in 2018. The number of shooting victims, in general, decreased from 147 in 2017 to 120 in 2018. And as of late April, Chattanooga had seen 32 reported people shot.

City leaders hesitate to attribute these general declines to one factor. In that time, though, state surveillance has increased and Pinkston's office has brought larger cases against alleged criminal groups comprised of black men and some black women.

In addition to the Athens Park Bloods prosecution, Pinkston sought a court order in 2016 that would prohibit 31 men allegedly belonging to two street gangs from associating with each other in East Lake Courts under penalty of a $50 fine or 30 days in jail. Defense attorneys said that infringed on the defendant's First Amendment right to freedom of association, and a judge ultimately dismissed the case in October 2018, saying Pinkston did not enter enough in the record for him to find the accused were a public nuisance. Pinkston said the proposed court order worked, since crime rates had fallen in the area since he'd brought the case.

Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at zpeterson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.