We have to out-gang the gangs and out-influence the bad role models children see in some of Chattanooga's inner-city neighborhoods.
That's the message from a geographic analysis of juvenile crimes and perpetrators in Chattanooga where half of all crimes committed by children under 18 were found in just five areas of the city: Brainerd, East Brainerd, East Chattanooga, downtown and an inner-city zip code that includes Highland Park, East Lake, Oak Grove, Orchard Knob and Ridgedale.
That last area -- Highland Park, East Lake, Oak Grove, Orchard Knob and Ridgedale -- is zip code 37404.
It is home to 4 percent of Hamilton County's juvenile population, but 23 percent of the juvenile crime incidents, according to data obtained from Hamilton County Juvenile Court.
Times Free Press reporter Todd South analyzed both the crimes and the home neighborhoods of the known perpetrators. Then he mapped both. What he found was that overall crime -- 990 instances -- is down generally from previous years, but both violent robberies and serious juvenile crime is up significantly.
Aggravated robbery, in which a juvenile must face and bully a victim, is up by 50 percent. And theft under $500 (not burglary) was up by 260 percent.
"Crime reports and numbers are up [in zip code 37404], but it's an illusion. It's not growing. It's just the same kids," said Chattanooga police Lt. Glenn Scruggs. "We're pretty much seeing the exact same kids over and over again starting at 11, 12 until they age out at 17."
He means age out of the juvenile court system -- not out of crime.
And that's what this analysis, as illuminating as it is, doesn't show: That this crime by those under 18 years old, coupled with those young men and women who have "aged out" and are now 18 to 28, has exploded into violence across the city.
Chattanooga was rocked by 71 shootings with 86 victims in the first half of 2013, compared to 51 shootings and 59 victims for the same period in 2012.
What Chattanooga officials have to figure out is how the city can reverse the growth of youth and gang crime in the heart of Chattanooga.
These 11- and 12-year-olds don't wake up one morning as criminals. They are influenced by older children and young adults who have already decided that stealing and bullying is a normal way of life.
The same 37404 zip code that garnered most of the juvenile crime last year, also claims a lion's share of the adult crimes -- including shootings.
Chattanooga's Mayor Andy Berke, knows the challenge, as does his newly appointed public safety coordinator Paul Smith, the former principal of Howard School.
Near the school, he said, he saw children as young as 7 or 8 emulating the older boys and girls in street gangs.
"We need to find ways to engage even those age kids," Smith said.
Wednesday marked Berke's 100th day in the mayor's office. Fixing the city's youth crime -- especially slowing the shootings by 2014 -- is a primary Berke pledge and objective.
He created a youth and family development department and expanded a literacy program in recreation centers. He has adopted the High Point initiative that he says in 2014 will help eliminate gang violence by focusing on major drug dealers, cease-fire negotiations and domestic violence programs.
But probably the real measure of his plan -- and any fixes that will be possible for 2014 and for the rest of his term and Chattanooga's future -- will be unveiled in the budget he will present next week and in efforts that include the Hamilton County school system.
Shaping what the youngest people in these besieged neighborhoods value can help change where they are headed. Will they be the newest generation of gang members and shooters? Or will they be tomorrow's teachers, doctors, lawyers and business entrepreneurs?
Shaping children's lives with positive programs sounds easy. It won't be. But it has to happen. And soon.
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