Cost of the Crossfire: Forum discusses solutions to gun violence in Chattanooga

Cost of the Crossfire: Forum discusses solutions to gun violence in Chattanooga

April 11th, 2019 by Meghan Mangrum in Local Regional News

Curing Brown, 13, Jaliyah Melvin-Johnson, 13, and Tommyuanna Johnson, 13, present the ideas they came up with for what fuels gun violence at the Cost of the Crossfire forum hosted by the Chattanooga Times Free Press Wednesday, April 10, 2019 at the Carver Youth and Family Development Center in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Some of their ideas included bullying, racism, social media, lack of love and jealousy among other things.

Photo by Erin O. Smith

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Poverty, lack of parental involvement, social media, mental health issues, low self-esteem, toxic masculinity, easy access and fascination with guns.

These were all causes of violence that a group of community members identified during a forum about the effects of gun violence in Chattanooga hosted by the Times Free Press on Wednesday.

The forum, held at the Carver Youth and Family Development Center after five days of reporting on gun violence by the Times Free Press in its series Cost of the Crossfire, was about more than what leads to bloodshed, but also how to stop it.

And it seems many community members agree: mentoring programs, family engagement, more funding for collaborative programs among government entities, access to mental health services and equitable funding for schools and resources can change the trajectory of lives.

Times Free Press reporters Allison Shirk Collins and Elizabeth Fite spent months interviewing local officials and leaders about the work being done in Chattanooga. With help from the nonprofit Solutions Journalism Network, they traveled to Cincinnati, Philadelphia and Savannah, Georgia, to learn about initiatives, such as school- and hospital-based public health programs or place-based, problem-oriented policing that have worked in those cities.

Dwayne Marshall, a native of Savannah who recently moved to Chattanooga, attended the forum and said he was "so incredibly moved by the series" and that he wanted to take part in the discussion.

Marshall is now the vice president of community investment for the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga, but he said he moved to Chattanooga because of its similarities to Savannah, one of the cities Times Free Press reporters visited for the project.

"I moved to Chattanooga because of how it was like Savannah, but I see that Chattanooga struggles with some of the same things that Savannah does," Marshall said. "In Savannah, I have family that were on both sides of violence, both the victims of violence and the portrayers of violence."

In 2018, there were 24 homicides in the city of Chattanooga, including those deemed "accidental" and "justified" by the Chattanooga Police Department. That's a nearly 30 percent decline from the 34 homicides the city saw in 2017 and the 33 in 2016. The city saw 113 criminal shooting victims last year, with 39 of those incidents being gang related.

Most of the shootings are concentrated in East Chattanooga, where the forum was held Wednesday, and more than 80 percent of the homicides in 2018 were carried out with guns.

The forum brought together more than 50 community members who discussed possible solutions and programs they'd like to see to help curb gun violence in Chattanooga — a problem that costs the state of Tennessee $8 billion annually.

Elected officials were notably absent from the forum despite invitations and representation from several organizations, including city of Chattanooga and Youth and Family Development Center staff members, Chattanooga Students Leading Change, the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department, The Loving Life Project, Moms Demand Action, and others.

Ann Pierre, former Hamilton County school board candidate for District 5 and longtime community organizer, challenged the Times Free Press and those in attendance to further the conversation about gun violence. She questioned why no elected officials were present.

"Gun violence is something that we all know too well and we cannot speak of gun violence unless we talk about why people are so angry they will risk losing their life to take another," Pierre said. "I am waiting to see if this is a study that will be placed on a shelf or if it is a study that looks at the structural issues that cause issues in communities of color and economic[ally]-deprived communities."

The Cost of the Crossfire project examined the outcomes of Chattanooga's Violence Reduction Initiative and the factors that go into reducing gun violence. While Chattanooga invests heavily in suppressing crime, it has struggled in recent years to provide community-wide intervention and prevention programs.

Organizations such as Father to the Fatherless, programs at YFD centers and even initiatives by Hamilton County Schools are working to address violence and its causes, but many wonder if it's enough.

"We need the parents and families and organizations and community members to take advantage of things we are currently providing," argued Melissa Graham, coordinator of community schools for Hamilton County Schools. "We don't have a lot of follow-through."

Health department officials said the stigma around mental illness and treatment was a concern, as well as teaching conflict resolution skills as early as possible.

Keshun, an 8-year-old second-grader at Hardy Elementary, summed it up.

"When they can't say it with they mouth, they say it with they fists or a gun," he said.

Robert Maddox, a YFD center employee, said the centers are underserving teens. The centers are open until 8 p.m., but most teens only stay until about 6:30 p.m. More adults need to ask the teens what kind of programming they want instead of thinking they know what the kids want, he said.

"Less of us and more of them," he said.

Many community members agreed that collaboration in communities and more people "walking the walk" is needed, too. Paula Wilson called for more from the city and Hamilton County.

She called for a comprehensive study of what programs local government agencies are funding, whether there is a duplication of services and how funds can be maximized. Other cities the Times Free Press visited for the Cost of the Crossfire series invest heavily in evaluating the effectiveness of the anti-violence programs, including the city of Savannah, by partnering with local universities.

"The school system, the county, the city don't collaborate enough," Wilson said. "There is a lack of funding for initiatives trying to put programs together. Maybe the funding is already there if we could just put that funding together."

John Bush is a community intervention specialist with Youth Intercept in Savannah, Georgia, which has shown success intervening in the lives of young people who are beginning to get wrapped up in the justice system.

He and his colleague, the program's director Sheryl Jones, urged forum attendees to build relationships with each other and to hold elected officials accountable for seeking change.

They highlighted multi-agency approaches to help at-risk youth in Savannah, such as the Front Porch program, which is considered a "one-stop shop" to addressing juvenile crime, education and mental health issues. Multiple agencies, including school district, courts and other law enforcement personnel, are in the building to provide resources.

Bush said they recently started a program called PAWS in schools to help reduce suspensions. The program provides students the opportunity to do community service at the local Humane Society, and it gets counted as "alternative education" instead of a suspension.

"You got to get off your pedestal, get out of your office and need to meet them where they're at," Bush said. "Don't make this the last day. This is your panel. This is your community."

Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.