ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
Staff photo by Olivia Ross / LaDarius Price speaks to an audience of students, families and officials during a Lighthouse Collective discussion at Brainerd High School about gun violence on June 7, 2022.

E'Jay Ward, head basketball coach at Tyner Academy, used to play in a summer basketball league in Chattanooga called Midnight Madness.

There would be three games throughout the night typically on the weekend — one at 9 p.m., 10 p.m. and 11 p.m., ending at midnight.

The gym would be packed, and the winners would have bragging rights for the remainder of the year. It was a supervised environment where Chattanooga's youth could be engaged in something fun and safe.

Midnight Madness lost popularity, Ward said, in part because of the expansion of a travel league called the Amateur Athletic Union. With not all kids able to participate in travel basketball, Ward said, there could be benefit in bringing the games back, especially as recreation centers reopen.

"Something is going to take precedence," Ward said in a phone interview Friday. "If fun can't take precedence, something else is going to take precedence for these kids out here living in poverty. The more programs we have, the more we can cut down on gun violence."

More Info

Historically, gang members make up a tiny fraction of the city of Chattanooga's population, comprising less than half a percent of its approximately 180,000 residents.

Over the past decade, elected officials have attempted to curb gun violence through a series of initiatives focused on reforming members of that group.

After two consecutive weekend mass shootings in Chattanooga that left three people dead and 20 injured, local leaders are again ruminating on ways to curb a problem that has plagued the city for years.

In a June 3 news release, Mayor Tim Kelly said he intends to announce in the coming weeks a three-part plan to address gun violence. That includes investing in youth mentorship and social development programs as well as extending hours and youth programming at local community centers.

Additionally, Kelly wants to address the root causes of gun violence, which the release said includes a shortage of adequate housing, poverty and gaps in opportunities.

some text
Staff photo by Olivia Ross / LaDarius Price asks the audience to be open and vulnerable during the talk. Lighthouse Collective held a discussion at Brainerd High School about gun violence, how it may be handled, and available resources on June 7, 2022.

TACKLING GANGS

A decade earlier, another Chattanooga mayor, Ron Littlefield, was dealing with many of the same issues.

"Even though it was pretty well known that Chattanooga had a gang problem, there had been a lot of denials in the past," Littlefield, who served from 2005 to 2013, told the Times Free Press by phone. "'Oh, we don't have a gang problem. We just have a problem involving young people misbehaving' — all sorts of things to avoid the term gang. So we just decided to go ahead and deal with it straight up."

In 2011, Hamilton County and Chattanooga leaders assembled a public safety committee that led to the formation of a gang violence task force. Boyd Patterson, a recently elected Criminal Court judge who was an assistant district attorney at that time, coordinated the group and helped develop programs in four areas.

That included preventing violence by educating youth about the downsides of joining a gang, intervening individually with those already in a gang, suppressing existing gang activity through collaborations with other law enforcement agencies and creating a path for gang members to re-enter society.

In December 2011 and January 2012, Patterson said, officers with multiple organizations took sudden, concentrated action against specific gangs over a single day, which included serving narcotics warrants, searching jail cells for contraband and sending code enforcement staff to scrutinize houses where members sold drugs.

The approach was based on a model in Boston called Ceasefire developed by criminologist David Kennedy, Patterson said.

Although the gang violence task force was scrapped in 2013 at the beginning of Mayor Andy Berke's administration, Patterson said Ceasefire later served as a central building block for a new program under Berke's tenure called the Violence Reduction Initiative.

Launched in 2014 with consultation from Kennedy, the program involved police and service providers holding occasional "call-ins" — in-person meetings with gang members to deliver an ultimatum: Stop the violence and get connected with job training or education services, or keep shooting and law enforcement will be ready to arrest and prosecute you. The number of shootings over that time period indicates the effort yielded mixed results.

'NOBODY IS BORN BAD'

LaDarius Price is the co-founder of a nonprofit group called the Lighthouse Collective that provides young adults with mentoring and life skills training. Price said the organization was formed out of a proactive desire to equip youth with the tools to become productive citizens and deter a life of crime or gang involvement.

Day-to-day, that has involved teaching etiquette classes at Hamilton County schools and organizing meet-and-greets with students and local employers. Last week, the group hosted a roundtable discussion with students from Brainerd High School.

"Nobody is born bad," Price said in a phone interview. "Nobody is born and they wake up one day and say, 'Hey, I'm going to be a killer.'"

Gangs, drugs and peer pressure are becoming problems at a much younger age, accelerated by social media, Price said, and intervention needs to occur as early as elementary school.

"If we don't put the right resources in their hands and connect them to positive individuals, if we don't create safe spaces for them and environments where they can grow, then that's when we see the things we've seen for the past two weekends," Price said.

Although the city has a curfew on weekdays and weekends, police don't have good options for enforcing it, said Hamilton County Juvenile Court Judge Robert Philyaw. If officers can't reach a child's parents after midnight, it's difficult to find somewhere to put them.

Philyaw said there needs to be a place where patrol officers can drop off youth while attempts to contact a guardian continue. He suggested the establishment of a dedicated space, akin to a recreation center, that is fully staffed with security, mentors and tutors for those referred there by police, the school or juvenile court.

Many of the young people who get involved in gang activity, Philyaw said, tend to do so because they don't have another outlet.

"When they can't read in middle school and they don't succeed in high school, they can't earn a decent living and there's a sense of hopelessness and the gang kind of fills a void in their life," he said in a phone interview.

The social services components of the Violence Reduction Initiative were helpful, Philyaw said, but that kind of work is still happening.

One encouraging thing about Chattanooga and Hamilton County, Patterson said, is that there are an inordinate number of foundations, nonprofits and outreach organizations already performing much of the needed duties.

"Those pieces are already present," Patterson said. "They just need to be put in a workable, collaborative arrangement so everybody's focusing on the 50 kids that need the most attention."

Contact David Floyd at dfloyd@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @flavid_doyd.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT