The most comprehensive gang assessment in the nation has just been completed by The Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies in collaboration with the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga, and the findings were presented Thursday morning to the City Council, which provided $75,000 to fund the project. The plan was based on the “Comprehensive Gang Model” from the Department of Justice, but was customized with local concerns, and will be implemented in three phases. Phase I is the assessment, which consisted of surveys to provide the best “snap-shot” available, to determine where to focus resources and how to proceed. Phase II will be preparation for implementation, which will use the findings to design initiatives. Phase III will be the implementation of the plan.
The study had input from schools and students, law enforcement, gang members, parents and the community. The school survey component had 5,057 participants consisting of students, counselors, teachers and administrators. It reflected the diversity found in 21 zip codes. Data compiled by the schools from 2010-2012 was also used. Focus groups followed the survey. However, only 32 school employees and eight parents chose to participate in that portion of the study. Profiles of participants in the survey reflected the actual population of the areas assessed, which was 32 percent Caucasian, 51 percent African American, 7 percent mixed races, 6 percent Hispanic and around three percent “others”.
Demographics in the study evidenced high unemployment and were located where the majority of household heads were females which were considered to be less stable families. The areas had low levels of educational achievement. The concentration of hot spots for gang activity was found to be located in inner-city East Chattanooga, specifically Avondale, Westside and Alton Park in addition to the urban core of East Chattanooga. The areas had a majority population of African Americans, and it was found that drug-related issues were two times as likely to be involved than any other crime. Looking ahead, the Hispanic population in these areas had a large percentage of people at child bearing age, so the city needs to prepare for growth in this segment, council members were told.
Attributes of home life, it was concluded, affected participation in a gang/clique. It was interpreted that the family structure alone is not necessarily the determining factor, but that the quality of parenting is the more important aspect. The report also showed that if the family consisted of five or more members, there was a higher incidence of involvement, and that poverty plays a key role. To those people involved, jobs were the most important thing.
It was determined that law enforcement is not accurately capturing the number of gang crimes committed in the city, which makes it difficult to see if the programs that are now in place are having a positive effect. Mayor Ron Littlefield spoke up, saying that the city needs better and more accurate data. Councilwoman Carol Berz added that the information available is based only on the data that exists, and other areas may be involved in gang activity if all the facts were known.
Some of the reasons that people join gangs were gleaned from the information on the surveys filled out by the kids. Cited as motivating factors were money, they had friends that were gang members, there was a desire for protection, desire for power and they wanted to feel respected. There were also family issues, and some had family members that were in gangs. They had a lack of role models and the desire for a sense of belonging. Some were forced to join out of fear and some participated because of boredom. Councilman Jack Benson related a study that showed the number one un-met need of children is the need for recognition. He said that the authorities need to provide ways to give that to them.
Examples of the type questions asked to students were if they were a gang member, if they were aware of gang-related behavior at school, have there been guns brought to their school, and if there are gangs selling drugs. A statistically large percentage of the answers were marked “not sure”. The explanation for this was that there is a reluctance to report gang activity because of the strong fear that they may be targeted for reprisal, even though they were told that the surveys were confidential and anonymous.
School officials are aware of the gang presence, but do not feel they know enough to always recognize it. Identifying features include certain cultures, activities, colors, signs and symbols which have built up around the gangs or cliques. However, these same features are not always distinguishing. They may only represent a “wannabe”. It was noted that sometimes these traits are exhibited for a person’s own safety.
From the student’s view, gang activity at school occurs primarily in areas where there is little adult supervision. Around 50 percent occurs after school with bus stops and buses being hot spots. Social media connections precipitate activity such as who will be targeted on the bus. Other locations where actions occur are in the neighborhoods. It was noted that by the time police are notified and arrive, those involved are often gone.
General information that was learned from the analysis of information showed that the gang activity in Chattanooga is only loosely associated with activity in other cities. There are “wannabes” in the community who will transition to gang members. It showed turf segregation is not well defined, and that with various public housing being closed, some gang members have moved to other neighborhoods.
The survey also identified the community’s perception of gang activity with resentment and distrust being shown. Some believe that the police can do nothing to deter the activity, and they are skeptical of the justice system. There is an opinion that the churches need to “get out of the four walls” as well as political leaders and non-profit organizations, which they believe should get more involved with the troubled youth. There is, too, the opinion that kids are having kids and do not administer discipline. The parents are “backing out”. In all, there is a community feeling of apathy and hopelessness, the report said.
In preparation to implement a plan for dealing with gang related problems, intervention in the schools and outreach work will need to be done in innovative ways. There will be an attempt to connect the dots between the schools and neighborhoods by creating broadly based diverse programs for the youth. Police Chief Bobby Dodd, said that education and more dialogue is the answer. “Operation Home-front” is in the beginning stages. This program indentifies an individual at school, who is in need of help and then resources will be taken to that person’s home. Rick Mathis from the Ochs Center described an outreach program that is planned which will send an intervention team of 6-8 service providers from the school to people, at home. The teams will include a full time outreach worker employed by the city, specifically to help people in the community that need resources.
The study ascertained a need for jobs and skills, vocational education, knowledge of how to get a job, and partnerships with companies. Mentoring and funding will be required for the programs. The most important need, said Mr. Mathis, is human capital. The solution to this problem will be a long termed process.