The challenge of gangs

The challenge of gangs

September 15th, 2012 in Opinion Times

The apparent rise in the presence of gangs and gang-related violence and crime in the Chattanooga area has been evident for years. Yet until recently, it largely received just token and intermittent attention. Release this week of the first in-depth assessment of gangs here should end any future indifference.

The assessment illuminates the how and why of gangs, their micro and macro impact on gang members lives and the broader community, the options and challenges for remediating the growth of gangs and rescuing countless lives from their menace, and the personal and civic benefits of tackling gang issues in a comprehensive way.

The assessment, to be sure, will challenge the vision and leadership abilities of public officials and civic leaders who wield the authority and power to act on the findings of the assessment. If they don't recognize and embrace the explicit challenges, it will be tough to make significant progress against the reach of gangs, or to stem the increasingly corrosive effect of gang-related violence on the community's broad sense of public safety, racial and social equity, and equal opportunity.

Candor and honesty in recognizing the genesis, spread and impact of gangs is probably the first criteria for action. In that sense, it was especially discouraging to see City Councilman Jack Benson complain Thursday to the assessment's authors, as they released their report, about the inclusion of the Hamilton Place Mall as one of the areas that was identified as a hot spot of gang presence in recent years. (This paper printed a copy of the assessment's map of the hotspots last Sunday.)

"This does real damage to their business," Benson asserted. "They didn't know they had a gang problem. I didn't know it."

As it turns out, police data identified just one gang-related crime in the intensively patrolled mall area -- a parking lot robbery by two gang members of another gang member. Regardless, the incident -- geographically coded in police files as a hotspot because it involved three gang members -- illustrates the mobility, reach and potential for gang crime even in intensively populated and police public areas.

Other multi-crime hotspots identified in the map -- Mountain Creek, Lookout Valley, East Brainerd, Bonny Oaks and Washington Hills -- clearly confirm that gang crime infects far more sections of town than just the inner-city areas of Avondale, the Westside and Alton Park.

Indeed, the map should be a wake-up call for action, not a demand for retreat from candor. There are other surprises in the exhaustive, 173-page assessment: Every zip code in the city has been impacted by gang activity. So has every public school included the assessment's surveys. Gang recruitment often begins when kids are 9 to 11 years old.

Young people, particularly in bleak impoverished areas where decent housing, good jobs, secure families, safe recreation, mobility and upward opportunities seem non-existent, join gangs for a range of reasons: money, protection, peer group identity, intimidation, fear. Getting them out of gangs requires a strongly supported, durable, multi-faceted response. The assessment lays out plenty of ideas to get the city started in that direction.

It also emphasizes that the need to move forward is urgent. Gang membership, according to police figures, is up 27 percent over the last year, from 1,100 to 1,391, in the area's 40 gangs. And absent comprehensive intervention, the exponential growth of gangs will be self-perpetuating.

One major key to stanching gang growth, the report says, is good jobs. Many gang members say they would quit their gang if they had a safe environment and a job that provided a decent wage and lasting opportunity.

That suggests make-shift public work programs and minimum-wage jobs that provide no security and little opportunity are unlikely to lure many out of gangs. It also makes it clear that job training programs and a supportive infrastructure would be needed to help the average gang member -- 23 years old, and often with little education and sometimes a record -- start a new and better life.

The effort to diminish gangs calls, as well, for strengthened and earlier efforts to get to kids before they feel compelled to join a gang -- or give up on school. Alas, teachers and school staff, often the front-line for intervention in gang life, say they feel unprepared, untrained and unsupported for the kind of intervention that would be required to help turn kids away from gangs. That needs a major remedy.

The assessment, the result of an intensive six months of labor led by the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies and UTC's Center for Applied Social Research, lays out a reasoned, comprehensive approach to address the gang problem. If city and county leaders and civic and religious organizations are up to the challenge, there is yet hope for quelling the rise of gangs. If they blink and look away, the problem seems certain to mushroom. This isn't a police problem; it's a community problem -- a challenge we can't afford to lose.