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View of downtown Chattanooga's riverfront.

Officers arrested at least 21 children and minors in Chattanooga's downtown riverfront area on the last two Saturdays in an attempt to stem what police are calling an increase in the number of unsupervised kids who hang out there after dark.

Twelve juveniles were arrested May 2 at the 100 block of Market Street -- near the Tennessee Aquarium -- and another nine were arrested May 9.

Police say the juveniles were walking in the street, blocking traffic, jumping on top of parked cars and congregating in large groups. But incident records show that some juveniles were arrested for minor offenses, such as failing to cross a street at a crosswalk and then refusing to leave the area when instructed to by police.

Each of the 12 juveniles arrested May 2 were charged with disorderly conduct, but in half of those cases the charges were dismissed at the suspect's first court appearance, local attorney David Veazey said. The other six cases haven't yet been heard.

Veazey thinks police are being too quick to arrest as they try to deal with the problem of unsupervised kids.

"They're trying to nip it in the bud, but if they're going to arrest them on disorderly conduct charges just to get them off the street and make them spend a couple nights in the detention unit, they're causing more problems," he said. "It's going to create more animosity between these kids and police, when essentially what you have is a child welfare issue."

He said officers should call parents or child protective services before putting juveniles in handcuffs. But police Capt. Corliss Cooper said arresting a juvenile is a last resort and that officers do try to get in touch with parents.

"We've got to make sure our visitors are safe, our kids are safe," she said. "And that's what we're trying to do -- make the city safe for everybody. I just don't believe these officers would arrest these kids just to be arresting."

There have been a handful of high-profile incidents of youth violence downtown during the last few years. In 2010, three adults and two minors were injured in a shooting in Coolidge Park after about 200 youths gathered for an impromptu party.

A year later, in 2011, shots rang out again in the park among a crowd of about 300 youths -- which prompted authorities to prohibit minors from entering Coolidge Park at night without an adult. Months after that, nine people, including five juveniles, were injured in a Christmas Eve shootout outside a teen club at 400 Cherry St.

Yet the total number of arrests of juveniles in Hamilton County and Chattanooga has steadily declined over the last five years, records from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation show. Authorities point to that as proof that officers are looking for other options.

And Cooper said not all of the recent arrestees were taken in on minor charges. A 15-year-old boy who was arrested downtown allegedly tried to dump a gun and ran from police, she said.

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Hamilton County Juvenile Court

The child had "a loaded gun that was ready to go," Cooper said.

But she said police have seen an increase in the number of kids spotted downtown during the last few weeks, especially between 8 p.m. and midnight.

Officers have noticed around 200 kids -- most unsupervised -- milling about the downtown area, from Fourth Street to the riverfront, Cooper said. Often they congregate in groups of 50 or 100. The department routinely assigns extra officers to patrol the area, she added.

Veazey said he recognizes the danger of unsupervised kids, especially when guns are so readily available, but he said kids will always find a place to hang out and there ought to be other ways to handle them besides arrest.

"When I was growing up, it was the mall and we had to deal with the mall cops. Now they can't go to the mall so they tried Coolidge Park, and now they're banned from there so they've found a new place," he said, adding later, "It's a child welfare problem, not a criminal problem."

Chattanooga's city-run Youth and Family Development centers typically close at 8 p.m. on Fridays and 6 p.m. on Saturdays, according to the city's website. The department did not respond to requests for comment Friday.

Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or sbradbury@timesfreepress.com with tips or story ideas.

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