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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Candidates, from left, Matt Hullander, Sabrena Smedley and Weston Wamp stand behind their lecterns before the start of the Hamilton County Mayoral Republican Primary Debate on Monday, Feb. 21, 2022, at SociallyU Studio.

Twenty minutes into the first county mayoral debate between our three Republican candidates, the moderator from Hamilton Flourishing asked a question about crime and violence.

Specifically gang crime and gang violence.

"What will you do about gang violence and shootings?" the moderator asked.

Interesting question. We know street gangs have long been entrenched in the city, but are they as problematic in the county?

In 2020, county officers responded to 4,675 incidents, or reported crimes, according to Hamilton County Sheriff's Office spokesman Matt Lea.

In 2021, they responded to 4,898 incidents.

That's 9,573 over the past two years.

How many do you think are known to be gang-related?

Half?

Yes, it's impossible to fully know, based on evidence or police knowledge. Some crimes may be gang-related — gun theft, robbery — but not known as such to officers, Lea said, also adding that county officers work closely with local, state and federal partners, sharing information, in order to prosecute gang-related crime.

"This also includes a strong partnership with the Chattanooga Police Department," he said in an email.

Weston Wamp, co-founder of Lamp Post Group and head of the Millennial Debt Foundation, responded first. He spoke about stronger education, effective anti-gang models and intervening in middle school to bring hope to young men.

Next, Matt Hullander, businessman and former owner of Hullco, spoke about trauma, law enforcement, the erosion of the family while specifically mentioning the effective work of Mike Gordon, founder of the Pursuit of Happiness, and Troy Rogers, the city's public safety coordinator.

Last, Sabrena Smedley, current county commission chair, said the question was personal; she's the mother of a police officer and, as a small business owner, a past victim of burglary.

We need safe schools and rec centers, she said, and a county mayor who supports police.

Then, she continued.

"We have a gang problem here in Hamilton County," she said.

Do we?

Of the 9,573 crimes committed in the county over the past two years, how many do you think were gang-related?

One-third?

One-fourth?

"I would support having a dedicated gang task force," she continued. "We had a gang task force at one time and we were identifying the gangs and running them out of Hamilton County. And then what happened? New administration came in and it got disbanded."

Smedley's words — run them out of town — echo back to the current sheriff's troubling remarks from 2012. Speaking to a Kiwanis Club, Jim Hammond said of gang members, "We need to run them out of town, put them in jail or send them to the funeral home."

Gang violence is a nationwide issue, rooted in massive complexities: money, joblessness, wage labor, schools and education, families, culture, police, politicians, media bias, the drug trade, the gun trade, gentrification, redlining and segregation, meaning and belonging.

You can't just run this out of town.

Plus, her version of history is misleading and somewhat inflammatory; yes, the gang task force was disbanded when former city Mayor Andy Berke recrafted it with the Violence Reduction Initiative. The task force was trending towards what the initiative attempted to be: a comprehensive and intelligent response to gangs and the forces that create them.

But during the debate, Smedley's tone was not calling for compassion, intelligence or a comprehensive approach, all of which would be more effective at reducing crime while safely keeping our officers from attemtping — run them out of town — the impossible.

"As the next mayor of Hamilton County, Sabrena Smedley will be tough on crime," she said.

Here's the problem:

When all-white candidates and moderators begin speaking about gang violence, they are invoking terminology and assumptions around race. Around here, gang violence always implies Black men.

The message often becomes: Let's run young Black men out of town.

Why not run rapists out of town?

Or white-collar criminals? Why not get tough on hate crimes and big polluters?

Was Smedley's call for a new run-them-out-of-town task force a simple mistake? Or was it intentional — a sort of local Nixonian Southern strategy to scare white voters?

Of the 9,573 crimes committed in the county over the past two years, how many do you think were gang-related?

The answer: 14.

In 2020, of the 4,675 incidents reported, 10 were gang-related.

In 2021, of the 4,898 incidents reported, four were gang-related.

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at dcook@timesfreepress.com.

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