published Tuesday, January 24th, 2012

Video: Tougher laws sought to deal with Chattanooga's gang problem

Joelander Wheeler, right, asks a question during a news conference about gangs Monday afternoon at the Chattanooga City Hall.
Joelander Wheeler, right, asks a question during a news conference about gangs Monday afternoon at the Chattanooga City Hall.
Photo by Angela Lewis.
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  • Chattanooga officials plan fight against gangs
    Local, state, and federal officials held a news conference at Chattanooga City Hall on Monday to discuss how the city will continue to fight gangs, including more focused law enforcement efforts and introducing new laws in the current legislative session.

Darryl Hill, resident agent in charge for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, put a fine point on Chattanooga's gang problem Monday afternoon at City Hall.

He pulled three bullets from his pocket. They fit the chamber of an AK-47 assault rifle, a round used in a World War II rifle and .223 bullet used in an AR-15 assault rifle.

"All three of these are being carried by gang members and are used by gang members in Chattanooga," Hill told the crowd gathered for a news conference on stopping gang violence.

The ATF agent was among representatives from local, state and federal law enforcement agencies who joined city and county officials to announce the formation of the Chattanooga Area Gang Enforcement Team.

"The problem is so serious and pervasive that we cannot allow inter-agency bickering, jurisdictional concerns, past efforts or any other impediment in addressing and solving this problem," U.S. Attorney Bill Killian said. "It will require innovative ideas and approaches from every corner of our society. It will require every state, local and federal agency to sacrifice."

Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield said he is working with metro mayors across the state to lobby for stiffer gang laws. The task could be a challenge as officials from the large cities in Tennessee take their case to state legislators who primarily serve rural populations where gangs are not a priority.

City officials want to persuade the Legislature to include prosecution of criminal street gangs under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, which according to current state law only applies to sex trafficking and large-scale drug trafficking.

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"[The proposed law] is a small part of a whole array of ways we're dealing with this problem," Littlefield said.

City officials also are lobbying for a law that would create an additional felony for gang members committing crimes.

Republican state Rep. Vince Dean, R-East Ridge, will sponsor the bills and look for co-sponsors, Littlefield said.

Previous attempts to pass tougher sentencing laws and gang laws have been blocked by a lack of state funding.

"I think we all realize there is a significant cost to having this [gangs] on our streets," Littlefield said.

As an example, he said the Christmas Day shootings that left as many as 10 wounded cost the city half a million dollars.

Federal agencies are working with local law enforcement as gang numbers and violence have continued to rise.

Chattanooga police have documented as many as 1,100 gang members from 44 different street gangs. Newspaper archives show there were about 150 gang members from a total of 10 gangs in 1997.

Killian said federal prosecutors will look for cases involving guns or drugs that could land gang members in prison for years.

"We will vigorously prosecute these cases," he said.

Littlefield said current gang suppression efforts are different from previous efforts in that officials hope to work with schools, nonprofit organizations and members of the faith-based community to prevent youths from joining gangs. A community needs and gang assessment will be conducted and two individuals have been hired to oversee the local version of what is known as the Comprehensive Gang Model.

"We're going to make this thing work for our children," said Fred Houser, who along with former Assistant District Attorney Boyd Patterson was hired to lead the task force. "We are going to have resources in place for children who want to come out of gangs."

Even if the city is unsuccessful in getting new anti-gang laws on the books, Patterson said law enforcement agencies will work together to use federal laws to send hard-core members away.

"Gang members need to know that this is what they are facing from Chattanooga Housing Authority all the way up to a federal dope or gun case where they will die in prison if they continue committing crimes as gangs," Patterson said. "That's the reality in Chattanooga now."

Contact staff writer Beth Burger at bburger@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6406. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/abburger.

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