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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Chattanooga Police officers are seen at the scene of a shooting at CHI Memorial Hospital on Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

While Chattanooga saw a sharp increase in gun violence by the time 2020 came to an end, it didn't see the same increase in homicides, something other cities have grappled with amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the police department's homicide clearance rate did take a hit.

In law enforcement, a homicide case is "cleared" when an arrest is made, the offender dies or if the victim's death is determined to be justified, meaning there was no criminal intent — usually out of self-defense.

Last year's clearance rate fell to 56%, down from the 70% to 80% range in the past three years. The last time the city saw a clearance rate in the 50% to 60% range was in 2016, a year that saw a bloody, weekslong gang war.

Cities across the country saw the same trend in 2020, according to The Crime Report, a publication by John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. Nine of the country's largest police departments reported an average clearance rate of about 59%.

The same factors — many of which can be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic — behind the spike in violence are also behind the drop in clearance rates.

In Chattanooga, 15 of last year's 34 homicides remain unsolved.

Sometimes police suspect who did it. But that's not enough to move forward with charges, and authorities only have one chance at conviction. That's where witnesses and tracing a victim's last steps come in, but the pandemic has altered people's routines and made people leery to meet investigators face to face, making that aspect of investigations difficult.

"Routines are a lot of how we build our timeline," homicide investigator Sgt. Adam Emery said. "And when people are not in their routines, the timeline doesn't work."

With schools and many businesses closed, many people are either out of work or working and learning from home. Many others are not attending their regular social gatherings. All of that makes it difficult to trace a victim's steps and to know who would have been in touch with a victim or suspect.

"It makes it very sporadic, almost to the point of chaotic," Emery said.

Another obstacle is that with many businesses closed or operating on altered schedules, it's been increasingly difficult to gather surveillance footage that could be helpful.

Investigators have to be mindful of their own resources, too.

"We only have so many investigators in the homicide unit, and I can't have every homicide detective out on one scene, and we're all exposed at one time," Emery said. "Then you have the whole homicide unit quarantined."

The department still sends several investigators, but it's always better to have everyone on deck, Emery said.

In addition to that, witnesses and victim families are less likely to meet with investigators because they don't want to risk exposure from police.

"I met with a family member one time — met her out front in the lobby and walked her back to my office, and my back was to her and I was letting her sit down in my seat. And as I was walking around my desk, and turned back to her, she's got one of those infrared thermometers and hits me in the forehead," Emery said.

They were both wearing masks, but she still wanted the comfort of knowing he didn't have a fever, he said.

It was an example that, "even with such a violent tragedy, they — all of us — are still dealing with the threat of our own mortality," he added.

CRIMINAL GUN VIOLENCE BY THE NUMBERS

2020 incidents (one incident may have multiple victims)

Fatal: 30 (2019: 26)

Non-fatal: 111 (2019: 80)

Total: 141 (2019: 106)

Victims

Fatal: 30 (2019: 27)

Non-fatal: 138 (2019: 100)

Total: 168 (2019: 127)

Source: Times Free Press and Chattanooga Police Department records

 

GUN VIOLENCE

Of Chattanooga's 34 homicides last year, 30 were by firearms. Year after year, a majority of the city's homicides are gun-related.

And while the number of homicides remained nearly the same as 2019's 33 killings, the number of people injured in shootings — excluding justified and accidental shootings — jumped from 100 in 2019 to 138 in 2020.

Of 138 victims, the youngest was 2 years old. The eldest, 71. The average age was 29.

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

In addition to the hardships brought on by the pandemic, in Chattanooga and across the country there were record-high gun sales. That led to more guns in the community, some of which could have landed in the wrong hands due to auto burglaries and thefts soaring amid the pandemic.

The weather also plays a part.

"I've done this almost 10 years," Emery said. "Most people are not out and about when it's raining or cold. I've never worked a homicide in snow."

So as temperatures rise, so does the violence. And last summer's violence came at a time when the police force was already stressed, as additional resources and manpower were pulled into action when hundreds of demonstrators flooded downtown Chattanooga over the May 25 death of George Floyd, a Black man who died under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer. The incident became part of a national reckoning over police brutality and racial injustice.

Community outreach initiatives by the city and its police department also had to be put on hold or shifted to more of a referral-based, one-on-one approach, again due to the pandemic.

The pandemic exacerbated the already-present socioeconomic disparities affecting those who are most at risk to turn to gun violence.

"Shootings and violence has been up all over the country — I mean, anywhere you go," said Troy Rogers, the city's public safety coordinator. "I think a lot of it is desperation ... We always talk about socioeconomic issues. And most of the guys that I've dealt with, they had issues in second and third grade. There was a problem. There was a reading problem, there was a father problem, there was a mental illness problem. Nobody wakes up one day and say, 'Hey, I'm ready to go blow somebody's brains out.' It just doesn't happen."

THE VICTIMS

For Emery, the cases that affect him most are those that involve children.

In 2019, Emery recalled meeting the young daughter of 19-year-old homicide victim Quintasia Tate.

The little girl smiled and twirled to show off a princess dress she'd been wearing.

At the time, Emery said it rocked him to realize her mother was probably the one who bought her the dress she was so proud of.

Fast-forward to last year, and Emery was at the scene of where the remains of 40-year-old Tamara Church and her 8-year-old daughter A'quarious were found in late July, over two months after they'd been reported missing.

In the 2019 case, one child "lost her momma and didn't even know it. And her world was forever going to be changed. And in 2020, A'quarious lost her life," Emery said.

While it was shocking to see how someone could inflict that much harm upon a mother and her young child, Emery said, it was humbling to watch how hard officers and detectives worked together to bring justice to the family.

Last year's victims ranged in age from 8 to 66 years old. All but five were men.

The motives behind the killings vary from domestic violence to robbery or gang disputes, but other times, there aren't clear motives.

"Sometimes it never makes sense," Emery said. "Your mind will never fully grasp it. You just have to understand that sometimes, inherent evil just takes over even good people."

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

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