published Sunday, November 24th, 2013

Gerber: Were mugshots the worst decision?

On Nov. 5, the Times Free Press published a front-page story about the arrests of 32 men charged with gun and drug crimes after a four-year local and federal investigation. Chattanooga Police Chief Bobby Dodd called the suspects the "worst of the worst" in Chattanooga's criminals.

We heard no reaction from readers. Not a peep.

On Nov. 17, the newspaper published a second front-page story about the suspects and their criminal histories. This time, we were barraged with feedback. Some of the words used to describe the report: irresponsible, distasteful, racist.

The difference? The second story included the mugshots of all 32 suspects. And the photos highlighted something: All 32 suspects are black men.

See their faces all in one grouping and you can't ignore that. You can't just shrug it off.

It was an in-your-face presentation, and some readers thought it was a mistake, that we should not have published the mugshots at all. Even some in the newsroom disagreed with the decision to run them -- or thought we should have placed them on an inside page where they wouldn't be as noticeable and would be seen by fewer people.

Many argued with the choice to refer to the men as the "worst of the worst," even though those words were chosen by Dodd, a man who's been in law enforcement for a quarter of a century.

The combination of those two things -- the photos of 32 faces and the label "worst of the worst" -- prompted a visceral reaction.

Some of the people who complained didn't read the story, which was balanced and actually asked why the "worst of the worst" were only black. The story's author, crime reporter Beth Burger, examined the court records of the men considered the worst. She found that collectively they have been connected to 103 assaults, 14 attempted murders, 27 robberies, two murders, 160 drug offenses, 42 weapons-related charges, and hundreds of lesser crimes.

She interviewed one of the men whose photo was on the front page and his mother. Officials said the investigation was aimed at key figures in Chattanooga's crack cocaine market. They're targeting the importers bringing in powder, the dealers selling the crack and those who use violence and intimidation to protect their turf. They said this was just the first in a series of planned arrests.

The newspaper didn't arrest or indict the men. We didn't label them the city's worst criminals. We did, after much discussion, make the decision to publish their photos.

Even if we had not done so, that would not change the fact that 32 black men were arrested and branded the worst of the worst. It still happened, even if we didn't run the photos. But when no one had to see those 32 faces all in one place, it was easier to ignore the fact that the suspects were all men and were all black. It might make the round-up more palatable, but it wouldn't change the facts.

So even though the paper caught some heat for running the mugshots, I believe it was the right thing to do.

Yes, my phone rang with calls from angry readers. Yes, people called radio stations and debated the decision, and displayed their rage on social media (some supported running the mugshots).

But at least people are now talking about this issue. And people are not just talking about the arrests, but about the societal conditions that push people to choose crime -- poor education, lack of jobs, criminal records that, even if they want to go straight, make it difficult to find work once they get out of jail. All of these issues were raised at a meeting the NAACP held Tuesday night to discuss the arrests.

In other words, the display of mugshots got people talking about possible solutions.

Not a bad thing.

The newspaper isn't jumping into this issue in an attempt to sensationalize it. This was a major bust. The investigation took years and involved the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, FBI and local police. It most certainly is front-page news.

And we covered crime intensely. We cover every homicide -- 17 so far this year.

We've been working for months on a project about inner-city crime that will publish in December.

Even before the 32 men were arrested, we'd written positively about two of them.

Columnist David Cook wrote about Reginald Oakley, the man who this spring forged a truce between gang leaders.

Burger spent countless hours on a front-page Sunday story, published last year, about Jumoke Johnson Jr. The second sentence of that story described Johnson as "a kid who still has a chance." The third said many Chattanooga police officers consider him "a thug who wreaks havoc on the city and may do so for years to come."

The front-page mugshots were not a one-day gimmick. The newspaper will follow the cases of Oakley and Johnson and the 30 other men through the court system. We'll also report on the consequences of the arrests.

One mother whose son was arrested told me he doesn't deal drugs.

She told me: He's not a bad man. He just runs with a bad crowd. He was at the wrong place at the wrong time.

So why, she wanted to know, was he called the worst of the worst?

It's a question we asked in Sunday's story, and it's a question we'll continue to ask as we follow the cases through the system.

Truth is, our coverage of this story has only just begun.

Alison Gerber is editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Contact her at

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SPQR said...

There is no solution other than recognizing the undeniable fact that blacks are, as a whole, takers not producers and givers. They are, on average and as a group, agents of destruction rather than creativity and construction. No, whites don't have the market cornered on purity either. However, on balance, it is readily apparent around the world that blacks are a bane on whatever society they live in.

November 24, 2013 at 1:25 a.m.
nucanuck said...


Do you blame Blacks for the corruption, greed, and decay in DC and wall Street that is destroying America? Or did white boys do that?

November 24, 2013 at 3:36 a.m.
Ernest74 said...

nucanuck - You can take the blacks and I will go with the 'white boys'. Blacks as a group, generally speaking, are not conducive to a healthy society.

November 24, 2013 at 7:11 a.m.
schizka said...

nucanuck, looks like SPQR and his alter ego, Ernest, would like to have a Nazi Germany style world wide holocaust with blacks being the main course of the meal.

Their words can be taken from the pages of history which directly reflect what Hitler and Nazi Germany once said about the Jews, Gypsies, crippled/disabled and small population of Africans living in Germany during his regimes terrorists reign. To know there are still people around today with such a hideous and heinous belief system is disturbing, but not at all surprising. As I once read somewhere that many from the Nazi camp were actually allowed to resettle in America after WWII. Guess they brought their belief system along with them and passed it on down to next generations.

November 24, 2013 at 10:31 a.m.
nucanuck said...


You don't address the fact that far more damage is being done to the America that was by the financial and governance corruption and greed throughout the land.

There is a wide swath of Americans that are born into a poverty so brutal that they never have a real chance to participate in the civil society that the rest are trying to maintain.

Your crude comment shows a real lack of thought about the challenges America must face if life is to improve.

November 24, 2013 at 11:33 a.m.
luckyish said...

Thank you for posting the photos and facts as you did. The people have a right to see the truth no matter what color the people are. The old saying " if the shoe fits wear it". Their will be other arrest later and no matter what their color happens to be, it is what it is. Thank you for telling the like it was.

November 24, 2013 at 12:17 p.m.
schizka said...

Will those future arrests include members of the very outfit that go out and arrest others? jus' askin.

Some of'em can't get the drugs and alcohol out of their own system, or their own households, so how in da he!! can they be trusted to get the drugs out of these communities or believe they're even remotely serious about it?

November 24, 2013 at 1:29 p.m.
conservative said...


You didn't call the TFP racist, why not?

You seem to have found one or two like minded comrades. I wonder if they worship the same earth god. I bet they aren't consuming those 2.3 earths that you say you are.

November 24, 2013 at 4:33 p.m.
inquiringmind said...

Worst of the worst?

Are those guys worthy citizens? Of course not. But...

Who do you think supplies the drugs these fellows sell, the drugs that enflame the territorial fight, the drugs that extinguish hope? The worst of the worst are the ones who feed the violence with crack, meth, etc.

Except for the seldom printed photo of folks like ex-sherrif Long we seldom see the worst of the worst.

Or, we seldom hear about the ex-Mayor and his minions who were behind or condoned dragging his opponent through the mud with false accusations about her religious heritage? Or, we seldom hear racist opinions expressed publicly that are held privately like those of SPQR, above, who appears to long for the Imperial Roman days, or the amazing day-after-day diatribe of folks infected with a rabid fear and/or hatred of an African American president in these electronic pages?

The TF Fox article begs the real question, what defines the "worst?"

November 26, 2013 at 7:02 a.m.
schizka said...

Very good post, inquiringmind.

see, Les Leopold: "How Wall Street Turned America Into Incarceration Nation"


Transforming poorer neighborhoods into desirable real estate for the new elites often requires getting rid of the poor: jail becomes the new home for many. The U.S. leads the world in prisoners with 2.27 million in jail and more than 4.8 million on parole. Minorities have been especially hard hit, forming 39.4% of the prison population, with one in three black men expected to serve time during their lifetimes. How is it that our land, supposedly the beacon of freedom and democracy for the rest of the world, puts so many of its own people into prison? We usually attribute the prisoner increase to a combination of overt racism and Nixon’s war on drugs, followed by Rockefeller’s “three strikes” legislation in New York, and then the 1984 Sentencing Reform Act with its mandatory sentences. While racism and these laws certainly provide ample opportunity to incarcerate millions for violating senseless prohibition laws, they do not tell


The thing is and what has always been puzzling, but not surprising is, my very first encounter with a prescription drug abuser wasn't with some poor minority from the 'hood or poor white person living in a trailer. It was while working for a wealthy family, living in a mansion and the adult daughter was hooked on both prescription meds, and also using illegal drugs. This was long before the term "prescription drug addiction" even had a name. It so disturbed me that I quit the job as a companion and caregiver after only two weeks, and after warning my employer I couldn't work in such an environment, and advising the individual should get help. I feared if anything went wrong I'd be blamed for it, because these type people, the wealthy, would never see the inside of a jail or prison for their drug abuse. Some lowly individual would be forced to take the fall.

November 26, 2013 at 10:35 a.m.
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