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Staff file photo / Downtown Chattanooga is seen from an overlook in the TVA's Raccoon Mountain Pumped Storage Facility.

The Biden Administration last month announced a new strategy to combat rising violent crimes in major cities, including using federal COVID-19 funds to help get a handle on the rising violent crime rate.

In Chattanooga, violent crimes — which include murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault — rose by 11% from 2019 to 2020. Although the number of murders and domestic aggravated assault slightly decreased, the rate at which violent crimes increased was in line with national trends.

Violent crime in Chattanooga is up nearly 16%, comparing the first five months of 2020 to 2021, according to the police department.

The Hamilton County Sheriff's Office reported similar numbers. Violent crimes increased 11% in the county, and gun-related violent crimes increased by 52% (up from 19 to 29). Calls and incidents of robberies, murders, rape and sexual assaults had all increased in 2020.

The most prevalent gun-related violent crimes came from aggravated assaults. In 2019, the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office responded to 16 aggravated assault calls that involved a gun and in 2020 responded to 24 such calls.

Gun-related violent crimes were up from 2019, according to figures compiled by the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office. A spokesperson for the Chattanooga Police Department said gun-related violent crimes were not specifically tracked and the narrative for each case would have to be read to determine those numbers. In any case, violent crimes for both departments saw increases, which would fit the criteria for the president's new program.

Biden plan

The Biden administration plan aims to:

* Stem the flow of firearms used to commit violence, including by holding rogue firearms dealers accountable for violating federal laws.

* Support local law enforcement with federal tools and resources to help address summer violent crime.

* Invest in evidence-based community violence interventions.

* Expand summer programming, employment opportunities and other services and supports for teenagers and young adults.

* Help formerly incarcerated individuals successfully reenter their communities.

The Biden administration's plan is to focus on curbing violent crimes by attacking "the root causes – including by addressing the flow of firearms used to commit crimes." The way the administration plans to help fund those initiatives is to use some of the federal COVID-19 relief funds because, it argues, the rise in violent crimes is related to the coronavirus pandemic, calling it a "secondary consequence of the pandemic."

Of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan economic stimulus package passed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, $350 billion will be earmarked for state, local, territorial and tribal governments and those entities could use the funds at their discretion.

Local governments like Chattanooga and Hamilton County will be able to apply for funds to hire more police, pay to support proven community programs and other investments "that we know will reduce crime and make our neighborhoods safer," the White House said.

According to the White House, homicides rose 30%, and gun assaults rose 8% in large cities from 2019 to 2020. Homicides were up 24% in the first quarter of 2021 compared to 2020 and nearly 59% higher than in the first quarter of 2019.

The plan also designates a specific role for 15 cities — including Atlanta and Memphis — that are committing to use the money to respond to a potential rise in violence this summer.

Another focus of the strategy will be to stop or slow down the flow of illegal or illegally acquired firearms. The White House said in its statement that to do this, the nation will need much stricter policing of gun dealers.

The administration plans on cracking down on licensed gun dealers who could have their license revoked the first time they sell a gun to someone they shouldn't, fail to run a background check before a sale and fail to respond to a federal tracing request, among other things.

Chattanooga Director of Special Projects Ellis Smith told the Times Free Press that the city is "awaiting the final rule before moving forward," when considering how it will use the federal money, like hiring more police officers and deciding which programs to financially support to help the rise in violent crime. Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger said much the same.

Contact Patrick Filbin at pfilbin@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickFilbin.

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