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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Residents of Chattanooga's Westside light candles that spell out "LL Brecia" meaning "long live Brecia," in memory of LaBrecia Dews at a memorial set up on the 1100 block of Grove Street on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, in Chattanooga. Dews was one of two women killed during a shooting at a block party in September.

As the number of homicides in Chattanooga remained largely unchanged between 2019 and 2021, the number of non-fatal shootings increased more than 57%, from 80 in 2019 to 126 in 2021.

"We haven't been able to point to any one specific factor, " said Jeremy Eames, public information officer for the Chattanooga Police Department, in an email to the Times Free Press.

When asked if the pandemic had a role to play in the spike, Eames said it would be difficult to say it was the only reason.

"Initially we all thought the pandemic was playing a role, and it still may be," Eames said. "But we're so far into it now, it's difficult to lay it all on that. People are simply resorting to guns to settle their disputes rather than less violent alternatives."

In 2017, there were 32 homicides in Chattanooga, followed by 20 in 2018 and 33 in 2019. In 2020 and 2021, the Chattanooga Police Department reported 34 homicides each year. The Hamilton County Sheriff's Office reported three homicides for 2020 and one for 2021.

Last year included several high-profile shootings across short periods of time, according to Chattanooga Police Homicide Detective Sgt. Adam Emery.

"It started with Jailen Wofford's homicide," said Emery, speaking by phone about a weekend in September that kicked off a string of shootings throughout the city.

"You have the two women killed on Grove Street, then you have a Hispanic party killed on North Willow two days later, then another two days later — the murder of Frederick Williams near Hamilton Place," Emery said.

Jailen Donyelle Moore Wofford, 21, was shot the morning of Sept. 25, 2021, at the Citgo gas station at 3410 Campbell St. Wofford died at the hospital.

Later that day, another shooting took place on Old Mission Road, leaving a 45-year-old man injured. That evening, a shootout on Grove Street left LaBrecia Dews, 37, and Keniqua Hughes 21, dead, and five others injured, with one victim as young as 14.

On Sept. 27, Omar Escobar, 20, was shot and killed in front of his North Willow Street home just before midnight. On Sept. 29, Frederick Williams, 29, was shot and killed, also in front of his home, on Shady Vail Lane.

In December, Kendel Robinson was charged with criminal homicide in the shooting of Wofford. In the Williams case, the man suspected of killing him, James Michael Farris, died at a Chattanooga hospital Oct. 1 after being shot by a Hamilton County Sheriff's deputy after he pointed a weapon at officers during his apprehension.

On Dec. 21, 2021, Mayor Tim Kelly announced at a news conference a $20,000 reward for any information that could lead to the arrest and conviction of those involved in the Grove Street shootings. No calls have been received in relation to the case, according to police.

"During my 14 years as an investigator or supervisor, there is a very big gap [in solving cases] or hesitancy because they're scared," Emery said.

Emery, who has been the homicide supervisor for the past five years, urges community members to come forward to help end violence in the city.

"We have the technology — technology that's on cellphones, social media, but a lot of times we need that piece of the community willing to testify," Emery said. "Sometimes it's not because they're scared, sometimes it's because they don't want the community to see them as a tattletale. When they don't [come forward], they leave these people who are killers out in the community."

Community leaders and activists are working to try to curb the violence.

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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Emoni Orr, 4, helps light candles that spell out "LL (short for Long Live) Brecia" in memory of LaBrecia Dews at a memorial set up on the 1100 block of Grove Street on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021 in Chattanooga, Tenn. Dews was one of two women killed during a shooting at a block party on Grove Street late Saturday.

LaDarius Price, a community leader, has been involved in several mentoring programs to help young Chattanoogans. His most recent project, the Light House Collective Initiative, just received $100,000 in funding from the county commission and launched Jan. 1. The program aims to have around 100 young people in its weekly mentoring program, with a total goal of 1,000 youths enrolled per year.

Price has also been involved in speaking out about the events of Sept. 25, a day when two of his proteges died of gun violence in two separate incidents in Chattanooga.

"When you have a person who is actually living, not just existing, to have a life like hers taken away, it hurts to your core," said Price about 21 year-old Keniqua Hughes, whom he mentored through the Direction for Life Classes from the sixth grade until she graduated from Howard High School.

Price, who spoke to the Time Free Press in a phone interview, was also Wofford's basketball coach and mentor. "To see him lifeless, it hits you in a [way] that you cannot put into words," he said.

Troy Rogers, the public safety coordinator for the city of Chattanooga, is writing a book that looks at crime through a socioeconomic lens. He has different theories on the causes of the surge of violence, including unaddressed mental health issues, absent father figures, poverty and illiteracy.

"When I came to this job, my question was what is the 'why' behind crime, why are these guys doing this, are we asking the right questions?" Rogers said by phone. "Nobody is born bad, nobody wants to go to jail, so what is driving the crime?"

Both Rogers and Price said mentorship programs and community involvement contribute to the shaping of young minds, steering them away from crime.

"It's about us reaching, loving and doing the best we can for our young people," Rogers said. "Until we bring these kids to the table and shut up and listen, we're going to be going in circles."

Contact La Shawn Pagán at lpagan@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476. Follow her on Twitter @LaShawnPagan.

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