Sohn: Want to stop the shooting? Improve education

Sohn: Want to stop the shooting? Improve education

July 31st, 2019 by Pam Sohn in Opinion Times

A piece of crime scene tape sits in the grass in front of a sign for the Menlo Park neighborhood at the intersection of Gillespie and Shallowford roads on Friday after a gang-related shooting. / Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter

Photo by C.B. Schmelter

It's been another bloody summer in Chattanooga, and the shooting doesn't show signs of letting up.

As of Tuesday morning, our city police were working shooting incident No. 64. The last nine shootings occurred in the past 11 days. The last 30 in June and July — including an officer-involved shooting on Thursday that left a suspect injured as police carried out a search warrant for illegal firearms. All told, there have been at least 79 victims — 16 of whom have died.

But who's counting? We seem numbed to the news.

"Crime scene tape lay at the foot of Menlo Park's sign reading 'Family Friendly Community' Friday morning, hours after 20-year-old Devrin Houston was shot and fatally wounded just in front of the sign, located at the intersection of Gillespie and Shallowford roads," wrote Times Free Press reporter Rosana Hughes about the second shooting on the same road on the same day. And a week before, a 25-year-old riding in a car was shot — just like Houston.

That first ride-by shooting occurred on the same day a 44-year-old woman was shot while driving in the 900 block of Roanoke Avenue. Two days later, on July 20, a 16-year-old boy was outside a home in the 2700 block of Sixth Avenue when he was injured in a drive-by shooting, and the following day, 28-year-old Tracy Calloway was shot and killed in the 4600 block of Trailwood Drive.

You get the idea.

The common thread? Gangs. Chattanooga Police Chief David Roddy — like other chiefs before him — acknowledged as much Tuesday. Another common thread, of course, is guns — hence the search warrant for illegal firearms that resulted in three arrests of young people ages 23, 26 and 27.

This year, we're surging past last year's shooting numbers. By this time in 2018, there had been 72 victims, 10 of whom died. In 2017 — so far our bloodiest year — there were 90 victims and 22 deaths.

It's not as though police and law enforcement agencies haven't tried to change things.

In 2014, the city cranked up an anti-gang program called the Violence Reduction Initiative. A carrot-and-stick program, the VRI was aimed at gang members "who shoot and shoot back." It encouraged police and prosecutors to use every legal means at their disposal to deter gang violence through the use of social assistance or — if necessary — stacked cases or special statutes to obtain long jail sentences for offenders. Gang members had a choice: They could voluntarily leave gang life and receive a range of social services meant to help them get jobs and get their lives straight, or they could end up in jail for a long time.

But it took nearly four years for the police and the Hamilton County District Attorney's office to quit sparring over turf. Finally in March of 2018, they got their act together, and the cooperative effort led a Hamilton County grand jury to indict 54 Athens Park Bloods gang members on charges ranging from aggravated kidnapping to first-degree murder. The indictment marked the first time a street gang in Hamilton County had been charged as a criminal enterprise under Tennessee's Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act, known as RICO.

Sixteen months later, none of the defendants has been tried (though one was killed after he made bond), and the case remains at a standstill while prosecutors and defense attorneys squabble over discovery and other legal issues.

Still, it's not fair just to throw cold water on these costly efforts and the well-over $1 million in surveillance equipment and manhours the city rolled out. Think what our shooting numbers might look like without VRI, the surveillance and the RICO arrests.

Local officials have called VRI and all that came after it "tools" to combat gang violence, but the truth is that they remain merely Band-Aids.

We can't arrest our way out of gang violence. We have to educate and employ our way out.

In April — a month that saw eight new shootings — the Chattanooga Times Free Press punctuated a series of stories about the cost of local gun violence with a community forum. We wanted to hear how Chattanooga residents — moms, dads, teens, neighbors — hoped to stop the violence, the pain, the drain.

As expected, the fixes were not as easy to describe as the causes: Poverty, lack of parental involvement, poor education, social media, mental health issues, low self-esteem, toxic masculinity, easy access and fascination with guns are too often not met with adequate funding for programs to stop their terrible undertow.

But Keshun, an 8-year-old second-grader from Hardy Elementary School, may well have best summed up both the cause and a vital path forward: "When they can't say it with their mouth, they say it with their fists or a gun," he said.

In Chattanooga, we've allowed thousands of young children — especially black children — to continue cycles of poverty in low-performing schools where, by third grade, scores show many cannot read at grade level. That means they can't read well enough to keep learning. Those students eventually drop out or are expelled — doomed to be unemployable, doomed to find the rest of their schooling in Gang University.

We might just as well have given these young people their guns and pulled the triggers ourselves.

Until we understand and accept this sad fact, we can expect more mind-numbing gang violence.

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