Chattanooga officials and some city residents took a big and needed step Tuesday by meeting to talk candidly about gun violence in our city.
Before the "Stop the Violence" community meeting began, Hamilton County Commissioner Warren Mackey, who hosted the event, said he understood no one individual has the solution for ending the gun violence. Still, he said, city and county leaders wanted to hear from the people and families most affected by the violence so they can work on systemic solutions that will result in less violence in the future. The meeting came in the wake of a string of shootings — including one on Grove Street that killed two women and injured five others. No one has been arrested in connection with those shootings.
Talk these folks did. And the word "systemic" was thrown around a lot.
Chattanooga Public Safety Coordinator Troy Rogers told the crowd at Olivet Baptist Church that he was tired of hosting community events on similar topics without seeing any follow-through. Like Mackey, he called for systemic changes that address the needs that lead many to commit acts of violence, such as a lack of access to education and a lack of mentors.
"Nobody is born bad. There is no kid that wakes up one morning and says, 'I'm going to blow your brains out.'" Rogers said. "If a kid cannot read in elementary school, he's going to prison. He's going to struggle. If he grows up in a poverty house, that's going to be hard for him. If he grows up without a father in his home, he's going to have issues. Everybody sitting here with their mouth on the ground knows this is real. You can't have a systematic issue, not do anything to change it and expect solutions."
Another poignant point was made by Chattanooga resident Audrey Ramsey, who spoke about the shooting death of her brother, Donald Cornelius Ramsey. She told of missing him every day, and she said the recent shootings brought back all of the emotions she has struggled with since his death.
Then she asked an important question. Why did some shootings seemingly get lots of attention from police and some seemingly not? She pointed to the Grove Street shooting and the recent manhunt for James Michael Farris in Soddy-Daisy after he shot one man.
"The message is clear to me. Black women in this city are not respected," Ramsey told listeners. "I grow angrier and I get sadder. Here we are nearly three weeks after and we still don't know who the perpetrators were or are," she said. "There was, of course, that recent manhunt in Soddy-Daisy. We know during that time the TBI, the Chattanooga Police Department and the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office were brought out. I wonder if the same attention is being given to the case with these seven women ..."
We were struck by her words. Were the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation or the FBI called in to help with a shooting of seven people all at once? If not, why not?
Had seven people been shot at Hamilton Place Mall or at a Soddy-Daisy apartment complex, instead of at a block party on Grove Street near a public housing site on the city's Westside, would it get more attention? And wouldn't it be to the advantage of Chattanooga Police to at least act like they were making a bigger deal out of what amounts to most of us to be a mass shooting?
(For the record, Chattanooga police differ with that mass shooting description, saying that they follow the "mass shooting" definition of the FBI and the Congressional Research Service — events where more than four people are killed with a firearm within one event, and in one or more locations in close proximity, according to department spokeswoman Elisa Myzal. We're using the definition of the well-respected, independent Gun Violence Archive, which calls a mass shooting one in which four or more people are injured by gunfire.)
But back to the question. Why was there a manhunt in Soddy-Daisy for James Michael Farris, the East Brainerd shooting suspect, and seemingly quiet business-as-usual on the Westside?
Myzal put it back on the community.
"The main difference between the two cases is community cooperation or lack thereof," she wrote us in an email on Wednesday. "CPD received Farris's name and photo within 30 minutes of being called to the [East Brainerd] scene. The next morning we received numerous calls to the homicide tip line about possible location details on James Farris. We've not had a single eyewitness come forward on the Grove Street shooting incident who can make a positive identification on a suspect(s)."
As for getting help from other agencies, she wrote. "First we have nothing but nicknames of potential suspects to go with, there's nothing to pass along. Second, the TBI was involved in the search for Farris because we had a positive identification on the suspect who had fled into another jurisdiction [Soddy-Daisy]. TBI placed Farris on its Most Wanted list and because of that, we were able to access some of their resources. Third, [Hamilton County Sheriff's Office] became involved because Farris fled to the Soddy-Daisy area which is out of CPD's jurisdiction. Fourth, this goes back to the definition of mass shooting ... That [FBI] definition ... directly impacts the department's ability to obtain federal resources."
Finally, she said, when Farris fled with a gun in his hand in the presence of law enforcement, it created "an immediate public safety threat." (Farris later was fatally shot by a sheriff's deputy.)
This isn't the first time police say their work in the city has been stymied by our community's hesitancy to help officers identify suspects. But it needs to be the last.
Tuesday's "Stop the Violence" meeting, on the other hand, needs to repeated until we get the message — and get it right.