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Staff File Photo / Bullet holes are visible in the siding of the home where a teenager was shot and killed on 7th Avenue in a wave of gang violence in Chattanooga in 2016.

A little over four years after it was created, the Chattanooga Police Department (CPD)'s Gang Unit has been dissolved.

Some of its members were transferred to the department's gun unit, whose formation was announced in January 2017 at the same time as the gang unit. Others were moved to fill other vacancies in the department.

The CPD news release announcing the moves concentrated on the Gun Team, whose purpose is to focus on evidence gathered at scenes where gun violence occurred and the of use specialized ballistics technology to link crime guns to people and people to crimes, building stronger cases against those committing the most gun violence in the community.

The news release did not say gang violence had been eliminated, reduced or was no longer a problem. Because it certainly exists and is still a problem.

Chief David Roddy put it this way: "The Chattanooga Police Department has a reputation as being a progressive department committed to intelligence-led and data-driven policing. We are continuously looking at ways to address and adapt response to criminal activity with the ultimate goal to better serve the members of this community. Expanding the Gun Team without seeking an increase in funding just makes sense."

Elisa Myzal, communications coordinator for the department, told this page in an email Thursday the Gun Team also collaborates daily with other CPD units as well as "federal agencies leveraging evidence and intelligence to ensure that quality cases are made on violent perpetrators."

She also said the supervisor of the Gun Team, Josh May, served in the Gang Unit from 2009 to 2014 and is still one of three CPD officers validated as a "gang expert" for court purposes and that other officers on the team were SROs, homicide investigators, and Gang Unit investigators.

Several things might explain the moves.

It could be the change in mayoral administrations. In 2015, former Mayor Andy Berke, with former CPD Chief Fred Fletcher, organized the Violence Reduction Initiative, whose purpose was to quell the gang violence that had grown in segments of the city over the previous several years.

With Fletcher retired, and Berke having left office last month, it may be new Mayor Tim Kelly's and Roddy's way of signaling that things are different.

It also may be a quiet way of the CPD signaling the local Black community that their grievances and calls for change aired last summer during protests after the death of Black suspect George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police continue to be heard.

During protests following Floyd's May 2020 death, Roddy said the department already had updated some of its policies in light of the anguish over deaths across the country at police hands. The breakup of the Gang Unit — which called attention to a specific criminal element — may be another update.

Or it may be that focusing on the Gun Team will be just as effective a way of getting at the gang members committing crimes as was a stand-alone Gang Unit.

That, in fact, is the opinion of Deborah Lamm Weisel, a teacher at North Carolina State who said as much in 2020 to Guns & America, a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.

She said a gang unit shouldn't separate itself from the rest of the police force but that members should interact with patrol officers.

"[It] can't be allowed to take on too much of an identity on its own," Weisel said. "It needs to be integrated and make sure it doesn't become too separate from the main function of the police department."

Jonathan Glenn, associate project director of the Juvenile Justice Institute at N.C. Central University, said in the same article that gang unit members are not the ideal ones to be involved in the type of community policing that is deemed so necessary today.

"I would encourage anyone looking to start a gang unit, or anyone looking to bolster their gang unit to make sure that they understand the context behind the issues and ensure that they are working across systems," he said.

The reallocation of five officers from the Gang Unit to the Gun Team, the CPD said, also will help take advantage of a $700,000 federal grant to add to existing equipment and improve innovative, objective technological methods of capturing evidence and data connected to gun/violent crime.

The Gun Team — which has been recognized as a model for best practice by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the International Association of Chiefs of Police — now will have nine investigators, two sergeants, and one civilian technician funded by the ATF.

Some of the investigative and administrative responsibilities assigned to the Gang Unit will be absorbed by the department's Intelligence Unit and focused deterrence coordinator.

Mayors and police chiefs have every right to adjust their staffs to suit their organizational styles. We just wish in this case they had stressed that what a few years ago was identified and promoted as a necessity for the department wasn't going away but would be eyed just as critically under another unit.

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