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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Police stand near a crime scene on Chestnut Street on Sunday, Oct. 11, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Gun violence has spiked across the nation amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and Chattanooga is no exception.

Despite a steady beginning, this year has seen an increase in shootings that matches that of 2016, a year that saw a bloody, weekslong gang war. But only a small percentage of this year's incidents have been confirmed to be gang related, according to Chattanooga police.

It's a trend playing out around the country, according to a preliminary FBI crime report based on data from 12,206 law enforcement agencies for the first six months of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019.

While nonviolent property crimes decreased, something experts attribute to COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, violent crimes such as homicide increased by 15% nationwide, though smaller and more rural areas may not have seen a spike.

"The same issues we had before COVID are still here, and COVID may have exacerbated them because now we're not hands-on like we were because of the social distancing," said Joe Hunter, program coordinator for Chattanooga's Teen Empowerment Center and affectionately known in the community as "Uncle Joe."

In larger cities, the increase was even sharper — 53% — this year over last, according to a report by the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice, which looked at 24 cities with a population of more than 250,000, including Atlanta and Nashville.

The commission's analysis looked for "structural breaks" in the data — any increases or decreases greater than would be expected based on data from the previous three years. Those breaks happened between May and June.

Here in Chattanooga, the number of homicides — by gun, strangulation, blunt force or other means — has remained steady at 24 this year. Last year there had been 25 by this time.

But shootings, both fatal and non-fatal, are up 20% this year compared to last.

One hundred and seven shootings have left 131 people injured, 21 of whom have died, so far this year, according to Times Free Press records. By this time last year, there were 89 shootings, 106 victims, and 19 of them had died.

Locally, reasons for the spike mirror those behind the national increase.

There were record-high gun sales, leading to more guns in the community, some of which could have landed in the wrong hands due burglaries and soaring auto thefts amid the coronavirus pandemic. Community outreach initiatives by the Chattanooga Police Department had to be put on hold, again due to the pandemic. Schools and businesses closed.

"People have nothing to do right now. People have a lot of time right now," Hunter said. "People are upset for different personal reasons, but then you add on COVID and restrictions, and 'I don't have no money,' and 'I can't do nothing.' And all of that joins into the anger of me being upset with you."

And then there was the weather.

Each summer, violence rises. But this year, summer's violence was met with an already stressed police force, as additional resources and manpower were pulled into action when hundreds of demonstrators flooded downtown Chattanooga over the May 25 killing of George Floyd, a Black man who died under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. The incident became part of a national reckoning over police brutality and racial injustice.

Chattanooga's protests began as one of the city's most violent months — June — picked up pace.

Twenty-one people were shot that month, and four of them died. July had the same number of victims, though only two died.

But police are working to get ahead of the violence as much as possible, they say.

Decades of research have shown that the mere presence of police officers can deter violent crime. Most recently, a 2018 Princeton University study looked at the effect that more police officers have on reductions in crime, based on statistics from 4,327 cities and towns. Some of them received federal grant money to hire more officers, while others didn't. In those that did, the data showed that additional police officers can prevent robberies, auto thefts and homicides.

Historically, only a small number of people drive a disproportionate amount of violence in Chattanooga, and the department continues to use its focused deterrence approach to target those individuals, police spokesperson Sgt. Jeremy Eames said.

"Individuals and groups that are identified as driving the violence or are involved in behaviors that increase the likelihood of violence receive increased attention from the Chattanooga Police Department," he said.

And the extra attention doesn't come just from police.

"As a mentor like I am, I'm in the kids' lives every day," Hunter said. "It doesn't matter what's going on."

"I have seen some of them with guns on Facebook and in different places. And when I see that, I go find them, and I talked to them about it," he said. "Some would say, 'Why don't you run in there, get the police to search the house and take the guns, Uncle Joe?' Well, it's not quite that easy. If they got the guns that easy, they'll just get some more guns."

"The only way that I know to be able to intervene to stop that young man from using that gun in some negative way is to get to know him. Through intervention, through relationships, OK. Kids have told me over the years, 'We just need a whole lot of Uncle Joes.' They need people that are available that they can trust."

This year's victims of gun homicides, all men, range in age from 18 to 59.

The most recent was a 21-year-old named Tyree Ray.

Ray, a Brainerd High School graduate, was shot to death in the 900 block of Dodson Avenue on Sept. 30. Another victim — a 20-year-old man — also was shot but survived. Not much is known about what happened, as the investigation is ongoing, and no suspect has been arrested.

The day before, 18-year-old Jacobreyan Reed was shot and killed in the parking lot of a Citgo gas station on Dodds Avenue. Police arrived and found him in the driver's seat of a red Hyundai Accent with a single gunshot wound to the head, according to court documents.

Two suspects — Kenneth King Jr., 31, and Harrison Ellison, 18 — were arrested on Oct. 7.

"It's very discouraging to see young people resort to such violent behavior to resolve their differences," Eames said. "However, it doesn't change the approach to the work."

And there is no perfect solution or a "one-size-fits-all approach" to stopping the violence, he said. But the community can help, too.

Staying alert and aware of what is going on in your neighborhood by keeping in touch with neighbors and attending neighborhood association meetings when possible is one way, Eames said.

"They could even hold what we call a front porch lineup where officers come to a neighborhood and are given their daily briefing," he said. "It allows for more community interaction with officers. Though, admittedly, [COVID-19] has significantly impacted our ability to hold those."

"We'd like the community to 'see something say something,'" he said. "More specifically, take ownership in their community. Recognize that violence, particularly gun violence, affects everyone in the community, not just those who may be the direct victim[s]. We are all part of a community. So when one person in our community is impacted by gun violence, we should all feel the impact."

Eames said that working together to stem the violence will be the most successful approach.

"[Chattanooga police] officers will never stop working to reduce violence in our communities," he said. "But to put it simply, we're better when the community partners with us. Always."

Contact Rosana Hughes at 423-757-6327, rhughes@timesfreepress.com or follow her on Twitter @HughesRosana.

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