Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond was high in his praise of the Chattanooga Police Department’s response to an “aggravated riot” late Saturday afternoon. “It was perfect,” he said during an update on the local response following the deadly Florida School shootings two weeks ago. “Chief (David) Roddy should be tremendously proud of his command staff and his officers. They did a commendable job.”
Hamilton Place Mall was abruptly closed shortly after the incident and a handgun was found outside an entrance.
A shell casing was also found but it was not determined if the spent round came from the gun.
The sheriff’s office now immediately responds to “active shooter” situations but serves in a back-up role for the city police officers. “We have safeguards in place and the security plan for the mall worked perfectly,” Hammond said. “All of law enforcement takes incidents like this very seriously. I think the police department rapid response and the professional way the police officers responded calmed what could easily have turned into a bad situation.”
It has been learned the large fight occurred when members of two gangs, the Bloods and Crips, “accidentally” ran into one another at the Mall late Saturday afternoon. The two gangs have a 50-year history of violence and rivalry. Surveillance tapes showed one individual, allegedly 18-year-old David LeBron Ballard, brandishing an automatic pistol. He has been arrested for aggravated riot, reckless endangerment and other charges.
The incident, which attracted the attention of the national media, came 10 days after another 18-year-old, Nikolas Cruz, killed 17 people in Parkland, Fla., and ever since Sheriff Hammond has devoted the majority of his time towards safeguarding the schools – both public and private – in Hamilton County.
“We just had a good meeting with School Board Chairman Steve Highlander and Schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson but the biggest steps right now are being taken in Nashville. I know our Hamilton County lawmakers are extremely concerned and I suspect by the end of this week we will be in a better place to make some unpopular but very necessary decisions.
“We can no longer ignore the evidence that demands we must act in the best way possible,” said Hammond, quite aware that across the country county sheriffs are actively training teachers and others in a “shoot back” philosophy. “Most people feel ‘good guns’ are the most plausible solution because those who choose to help protect the students are already at the schools.
“What people must know is that I or any other sheriff is not going to make anyone carry a gun. This is strictly voluntary and then each applicant must go through a vetting program. We are suggesting a 40-hour class, much more detailed than the eight-hour ‘carry permit’ offered statewide in Tennessee. Nobody will be asked to carry a weapon – it is totally voluntary,” he repeated.
Hammond said that several years ago the Tennessee legislature actually approve a bill enabling educators to carry weapons but said recent happenings and new concerns require the bill to be updated. “Even at that, I fully expect the Legislature to present a plan and enable some solutions by the end of this week or early next week.”
Hammond, who has been instrumental in working with legislators since the Valentine’s Day massacre, said several ideas are being considered but that the state lawmakers are strongly considering giving the sheriffs in every Tennessee county the leeway to do what’s best on a county-by-county basis.
“It is obvious what is best for Hamilton County will be different than what a rural county in West Tennessee needs. A large Metro area like Nashville is far different than a smaller county in upper East Tennessee. There is no question I will talk to sheriffs who have the same demographics I do and I am ‘all ears’ for any ideas that can keep children safe.”
The sheriff remains adamant the top need in every Hamilton County school is a counselor at every school. “Nobody knows students better than the other students. These kids can tell you who is being abused at home, who is selling drugs, the bullies and who is being bullied, and can point to every at-risk child there is. This is how you can stop everything. Listen to these children.
“If the School Board wants to really help kids, then really help. A good counselor … someone our children knows who cares about them, is the biggest piece of the puzzle. We need to act on this immediately and what it costs is nothing compared to what it can cost.”
We’ve got to act right now. Very boldly.