published Tuesday, March 4th, 2014

Crime in general declines in Chattanooga, but shootings increase

BY THE NUMBERS

Here are preliminary crime statistics for 2013 in Chattanooga compared to the four-year average between 2009 and 2012.

• 19 - Homicides (8 percent decrease)

• 54 - Rapes (5 percent increase)

• 950 - Motor vehicle thefts (9 percent increase)

• 376 - Robberies (21 percent decrease)

• 1,184 - Aggravated assaults (9 percent increase)

• 2,260 - Burglaries (15 percent decrease)

• 8,028 - Thefts (2 percent decrease)

Sources: Chattanooga Police Department and FBI metropolitan statistical data

  • photo
    Crime Scene Investigator Ken Burnette photographs the scene of a shooting at the intersection of Wilson Street and North Orchard Knob Avenue in October, 2013.
    Photo by Doug Strickland.
    enlarge photo

The shooting of a man in broad daylight as he drove on Central Avenue last week made headlines.

But chances are what happened to Derrick Thornton wouldn't happen to most people in most parts of the city.

Nearly three-quarters of Chattanooga's shootings happen in locations where only about 10 percent of the county's population live, U.S. census data and shooting data for 2013 through last month show.

Yet some people think crime is a problem throughout the city.

"Suburban residents think violent crime is out of control but it's not," said Ken Chilton, assistant professor of public policy at Tennessee State University, who analyzed the data. "If you are white and live in a neighborhood with moderate to higher income, you're generally safe."

What does raise concern is the neighborhoods where there were six or more shootings in a little more than a year.

"Mayor [Andy] Berke is correct to focus on those hot spots," Chilton said.

The area where Thornton was shot is part of a census tract that spans from Interstate 24 to Central Avenue and just south of Main Street to East 23rd Street. It's an area known for drugs and prostitution.

It is among the areas of Chattanooga where the most shootings often occur -- the east and south parts of the city. These areas had 112 shootings in all of 2013 and through Feb. 24 of this year. That compares to 29 in the rest of the city during the same period.

On the whole, though, crime in Chattanooga began to trend downward last year when compared to 2012 and to a previous four-year average of crime data.

Preliminary crime statistics released by Chattanooga police show that the city had fewer aggravated assaults in 2013 than the year before. However, the number of shootings -- they're counted among aggravated assaults -- rose.

And a comparison of last year's 1,184 aggravated assaults -- shootings, beatings, stabbings -- with the previous four-year average shows that aggravated assaults jumped by nearly 9 percent.

In all, 953 people were victims of violent crime per 100,000 people in Chattanooga in 2013; 6,561 were victims of property crime.

Overall, though, when compared to the previous four-year period from 2009 to 2012, crime dipped slightly, by nearly half a percentage point. The violent crime rate is down nearly 2 percentage points when compared to the four-year average. Property crime declined by nearly 3 percentage points.

"[Overall crime] has gone down slightly. It's trending in the right direction," Chilton said.

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke hopes to build on that trend.

"In various months, you're going to see spikes and issues. We know that you can't control every situation, but the trend line has to be down," Berke said. "Last year, we see a positive trend line for the city. We want to step that up a notch."

City to offer chance to change

Later this month, Berke plans to kick off the city's Violence Reduction Initiative, which would target suspected offenders connected to shootings throughout the city. The hope is to offer them a hand to change their lives. A GED, counseling, drug rehabilitation and other resources are on the table, if they're willing to put the guns down.

The alternative is police zeroing in on them and putting them away with a lengthy prison sentence.

Berke hopes the program will help neighborhoods with high levels of violence, and he emphasized the importance of reading programs in the same communities.

"One of the biggest indicators of long-term success is your ability to read at grade level," he said.

Though only one-tenth of the county's population lives in the neighborhoods reporting six or more shootings, they are home to 14 percent of the county's youngest children -- below the age of 5. That translates to 2,852 children.

In those same areas, 33 percent of people on average have less than a high school education, 42 percent live below poverty, 21 percent are unemployed and 76 percent of residents are non-white, census records show.

"They have high percentages of adults who lack a high school degree, household income is less than 50 percent of the county median and more than one-third of residents live in extreme poverty," Chilton said.

The problem starts at a young age; lower education levels can lead to a life of poverty.

"The thing is hopelessness," said Everlena Holmes, who coordinates the neighborhood block leaders in Glenwood. "If people had hope, they would become empowered."

Berke said reading programs have been placed in youth and family development centers across the city. A total of 466 students ranging from pre-k to fifth grade are enrolled. There's also a program for older students and adults.

"We've put a lot of focus on reading," he said. "We're coordinating more with the school system."

The problem is not unique to Chattanooga. Last week, President Barack Obama announced a new program, My Brother's Keeper, that would aid young men of color.

Nationwide, by the time black boys are enrolled in fourth grade, 86 percent are below reading proficiency levels. Of Hispanic boys of the same age, 82 percent are below reading proficiency levels, according to data released by the White House.

Hispanic and black men are six times more likely to be victims of homicides, according to national statistics. In Chattanooga in all of 2013 through last month, 19 of 24 homicide victims were black men -- 79 percent.

Of all shooting victims in Chattanooga, 92 percent were black.

Behind the numbers

Police and public officials hope the city's Violence Reduction Initiative will lead to improvements in a number of crime categories, not just shootings.

For example, it's not uncommon for police to learn of a shooting suspect who stole a car to commit the crime.

"The Violence Reduction Initiative is going to affect several of these categories. ... overall crime, murder, aggravated assault, and in the way we're using it, it could also affect robbery, burglary and larceny," said Chattanooga police Lt. Todd Royval.

Police have already started reaching out to those who are connected to violence.

In the past couple of months, two gangs have continued to retaliate with violence, police said. The dispute initially started over a woman but spilled over when gunmen who police believe are with the Athens Park Bloods came to a house on East 50th Street looking for a high-ranking member of the Bounty Hunter Blood gang.

Instead they found a 13-year-old boy. Deontrey Southers was shot and killed at the doorway of his home.

Shootings have continued in the south side of the city since the Jan. 21 killing, according to police. It's unclear whether Thornton's shooting and others are connected to the violence, Royval said.

But he said police have spoken to key members in both gangs in hopes of stopping more bloodshed. They were told that lengthy prison sentences await them if the violence doesn't stop. Some gang members said they would work to slow the violence.

"This week has been bad," Royval said last week. "We went a couple of weeks where we only had one shooting. I would like to think that had something to do with getting our message out."

Hope for the future

Two things have to happen if the violence reduction initiative is to succeed, said Holmes, who also is an observer for a justice program that encourages rehabilitation of inmates in Pennsylvania, where she spends part of her time.

Police must reach out to the communities, and they must reach out to the hopeless, she said.

"Right now, the communities have not met with police in their community. ... Until that happens, they will be skeptical. They still have the same view ... even if you roll [the initiative] out," she said.

Paul Smith, the city's public safety coordinator, has begun to meet with neighborhood leaders to explain how the initiative will work.

After they are briefed, Smith said, there will also be meetings open to all residents. A meeting in East Chattanooga has been scheduled in late March where Smith and police will be present to also answer questions, he said.

It's in the interest of the entire community for the initiative to succeed, Holmes said.

"We are here because we are trying to solve a problem within our neighborhood, with our community within the city," Holmes said. "We want business in the city. We don't want to run people away.

"We don't want people saying, 'Don't go to Chattanooga. They're killing everybody over there, stabbing people'. We all have to come to some sort of solution with this problem," she said.

That all begins with trust between police and community members.

When the talks do occur, chances are there will be anger on both sides, Holmes said.

"A lot of the communities think awful of the police," Holmes said. "And a lot of the police feel the community ought to be doing a lot more than they are doing."

Each side has its opinions.

"The police have got theirs. The community has theirs. It's going to be that way until they come together," Holmes said.

Is it possible for the two to work together?

"It has to be," Holmes said. "Give it an opportunity anyway."

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

videos »         

photos »         

e-edition »

advertisement
advertisement
400 East 11th St., Chattanooga, TN 37403
General Information (423) 756-6900
Copyright, Permissions, Terms & Conditions, Privacy Policy, Ethics policy - Copyright ©2014, Chattanooga Publishing Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
This document may not be reprinted without the express written permission of Chattanooga Publishing Company, Inc.