Amid a deadly 2014 crossfire between two Chattanooga street gangs, a 40-year-old man sat down with three police investigators, told them what he knew about the recent homicide of a 13-year-old, outed a few drug dealers and offered to arrange a peacemaking meeting so officers could arrest anyone illegally carrying a firearm.
The investigators had an end goal with Tommy Hubbard: They wanted him to be a "silent killer" and give information on his friends in the Athens Park Bloods and Bounty Hunter Bloods. They told Hubbard "there ain't gonna be no more passes" and asked if he could arrange a meeting with members of both groups so officers could serve a search warrant.
"We're going to focus on y'all until you go to prison," said one of the officers. "Doesn't matter if it's a [drug] dime bag, doesn't matter if it's a murder."
A review of arrest records and newspaper archives suggests the proposed bust never happened. But the conversation, which was recorded and posted on Facebook last weekend, raises questions about the way some officers use people in the most dangerous and neglected neighborhoods to facilitate crime.
"The biggest part to me was the officer telling Hubbard that he can be a silent killer," said Marie Mott, a Chattanooga activist who first played some of the conversation this week on her 92.7 FM radio show. "[It implies], if you can handle this for us, we'll look the other way and just go after the [other] gang. And we've got bodies stacking up in the meantime."
The Times Free Press interviewed 10 attorneys, community members and other criminal justice experts about the Hubbard conversation. The legal consensus was this kind of police work is not uncommon, and it doesn't appear to meet the limited definition of entrapment.
"This comes from the U.S. Supreme Court [from a 1958 case]: Facilitation is not entrapment," said defense attorney Jonathan Turner. "I would absolutely consider that recording facilitation. They set the meeting up, but they didn't make anybody pick up a gun [which would be a crime if they're a convicted felon or on probation]. They facilitated them to commit a crime."
Others say the Hubbard conversation shows how cities often go with a prosecution-first approach that neglects the underlying factors that cause people to join gangs and carry weapons in self defense. Meanwhile, violence continues.
"Mostly these techniques are not very effective, and even when they show some short-term benefit [like a drop in crime], they do so through more intimidation and fear-based tactics," said Alex Vitale, a sociology professor at Brooklyn College who writes about policing. "And these folks already have lives filled with fear and intimidation, so if we're trying to give them a hand up, this is the wrong approach to take."
Since 2014, the city has used the Violence Reduction Initiative, or VRI, and other focused deterrence programs to curb gang-related gun violence. The idea is, violent gang members are given an ultimatum: Stop shooting and get help through social service programs, or keep shooting and face the full brunt of the law through targeted policing.
In past years, law enforcement has differed on best approaches: After Chattanooga police provided the Times Free Press with a list of arrests that showed VRI offenders getting little jail time, Hamilton County District Attorney General Neal Pinkston countered that misdemeanor arrests aren't effective enough. He said in 2016 gangs should be prosecuted as criminal enterprises, which is what he's doing with his 55-person racketeering case against the Athens Park Bloods.
The city's social services side has also had ups and downs.
The Times Free Press previously reported a major funding source pulled out of the VRI in August 2014 and that city officials may have inflated the number of people getting jobs and services through nonprofit aid. In 2018, the city council declined to renew its contract with one of those nonprofits, Fathers to the Fatherless, which offered mentoring to at-risk youth.
The new solution is to hire three intervention specialists with the police department who will coordinate with Public Safety Director Troy Rogers and Joe Hunter, the program coordinator for the Teen Empowerment Center. They will be working full time by mid-January, said Kerry Hayes, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke's deputy chief of staff.
The efforts have shown some positive signs: Though violence was high in 2015, 2016 and 2017, Chattanooga homicides decreased between 2017 and 2018 from 34 to 21, data shows.
But many gang members, who are often related, remain trapped in violence, poverty with little political power or opportunity, Mott said. They are used by police or prosecutors to solve bigger cases, but their own situations don't often improve as a result, Vitale said.
"We're never concerned about why people are doing this stuff," Mott said on her radio show on NoogaRadio 92.7 FM. "There's nothing to do in this city in areas where predominantly people of color live in [The officer in the recording] didn't say we will help you transition. He didn't say I'm going to talk to the mayor about employment, or I'm going reach out to the churches and see what they can do. Or at least offer some assistance—emotional or physical support in schools, that's Fathers to the Fatherless. But we pulled the plug on this [and spend] millions of dollars on guns and surveillance."
Law enforcement personnel have to gather information to either solve crimes or prevent them, and sometimes they toss out false information to get people talking, attorneys said. But each investigator is different. While some may use such information to make an immediate arrest, others may use an informer to make a buy for them, or save the information for a larger case down the road, attorneys said. In the Hubbard conversation, the Chattanooga investigators say they are tired of the violence and suggest the gangs can co-exist with police if the worst four or five members on both sides are incarcerated.
Pinkston's spokeswoman could not confirm Friday if the conversation is a piece of evidence in the 55-person Athens Park Bloods gang racketeering case, saying she hadn't heard the recording. Chattanooga police spokeswoman Elisa Myzal said the department did not release information in an ongoing case and investigation.
Since fall, however, prosecutors have been exchanging evidence with defense attorneys representing the racketeering defendants. And there is a clear link between the Hubbard conversation and some of the background in the case.
Hubbard appeared to be speaking to law enforcement sometime in 2014, after the January shooting of 13-year-old Deontrey Southers, which sparked a Federal Bureau of Investigation probe into the groups. After the Southers homicide, members of the Athens Park Bloods and Bounty Hunter Bloods fired at one another several times. For his part, Hubbard was shot four times in the hip in February 2014.
That violence culminated in Cortez Sims entering a College Hill Courts apartment in January 2015 and opening fire on an associate of the Bounty Hunter Bloods; Bianca Horton; Horton's baby; and Horton's friend, 20-year-old Talitha Bowman, who died, prosecutors previously said. Horton was later slain in 2016, prosecutors say, by Athens Park Blood members who wanted to prevent her from testifying against their associate, Sims, who was still convicted in the shooting and given a life sentence in April 2017.
To date, the Hubbard recording is not the only piece of evidence that found its way to Facebook. In October, somebody posted documents that showed how area FBI agents have used interviews with cooperating Athens Park Bloods members and other confidential informants to build a substantial file that prosecutors are using as some of their evidence.
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.