Violence toll rises in Chattanooga

On October 30, 2011, in News 2011, by Mark Norris

By Beth Burger, October 30, 2011 The call went out to police as an armed man approaching people in front of a residence. The caller told dispatchers to hurry and send officers as soon as possible. Seconds later the dispatcher reported “shots fired.” Investigator Christopher Sims blew through three intersections from Kelley Street with […]

By Beth Burger,
October 30, 2011

The call went out to police as an armed man approaching people in front of a residence. The caller told dispatchers to hurry and send officers as soon as possible.

Seconds later the dispatcher reported “shots fired.” Investigator Christopher Sims blew through three intersections from Kelley Street with sirens blaring and blue lights flashing in his Chattanooga Police Department-issued Ford Crown Victoria.

As he rolled up to the 3100 block of Fifth Avenue on Friday night, the scene looked similar to those seen over and over across the city this year.

Three people with gunshot wounds lay strewn in the road.

A woman’s screams pierced the chill night air.

There have been 50 shootings in Chattanooga to date this year. Last week alone, nine people were wounded and one killed in four shootings — at least one gang related, according to authorities.

It was too soon to say whether Friday night’s shooting was gang-related, but authorities say one thing is clear: Gang activity is increasing.

More and more of the city’s violence is linked to 44 documented gangs. They have as many as 1,100 members, far outnumbering the city’s 463 uniformed officers.

So far this year, 15 of 23 homicides — 65 percent — are gang-related, according to police. That’s up from 30 percent in 2008.

In 1997, Chattanooga police estimated there were 10 criminal street gangs with about 150 members and five gang-related killings in the city, according to newspaper archives.

“The gang problem in Chattanooga is real, and it’s not going away,” said Hamilton County Assistant District Attorney Boyd Patterson, who has been assigned to tackle gang prosecutions.

The problem, police and prosecutors say, is that Tennessee lacks laws that would allow them to make inroads into gang crime.

Other states, including Florida and California, have passed laws targeting criminal street gangs’ membership.

Patterson said Tennessee is years behind other states in addressing the reality of gang prosecution.

“Right now we’re fighting fires with buckets of water,” he said. “Other states have water hoses. We should have those, too.”


Tennessee has had enhanced sentencing laws for gang members since 1997, but prosecutors in major cities across the state say the law is cumbersome, ineffective and seldom used.

Crimes included in the law include violence that causes bodily injury as well as drug or gun dealing. Enhancement can double gang members’ sentences, Patterson said.

But to use the law, prosecutors have to complete a four-step process before a jury can even hear evidence of a defendant’s gang membership.

In states such as California, which has the Street Terrorism Enforcement Prevention Act, the jury routinely will hear proof of gang membership.

In Tennessee, some requirements for disclosing a gang member’s status include presenting more evidence at a hearing and persuading the judge that it will not be prejudicial.

“We have to put on additional witnesses. We have to go back further; it’s additional barriers to cross,” Patterson said. “A lot of times a jury never gets to hear a defendant is in a gang because some step in that four-part analysis is going to fall through.”

The gang enhancement sentencing law has never been used in Hamilton County.

In Davidson County, the law has been used once, with a second case pending, according to prosecutors. The defendant in the first case pleaded guilty.

In Shelby County, the law has been used five or six times, but even those cases never made it to trial, said Paul Hagerman, director of the organized crime special operations prosecution unit at the Shelby County District Attorney’s Office.

Hagerman used the law about six years ago against two members of the street gang known as the Memphis Mob who had been identifying themselves as police officers or FBI agents when they committed robberies.

“It was a small group with a particular purpose and who had a particular way of dressing,” said Hagerman. “Ultimately, none of the gang enhancement cases went to trial. We used the fact they were facing increased sentences to get guilty pleas. It gave us some leverage.”

Hagerman said the law should include a wider range of crimes, such as burglary and robbery.

“My unit specializes in prosecuting these [organized crime] groups, and they commit serial robberies and burglaries. It’s really the crimes that impact people on an everyday basis. We try creatively to get the best time we can,” he said.

To date, the Shelby County District Attorney’s Office has 35 pending homicide cases that are all gang-related.

“We’ve had gangs for a long time now in Memphis. The hierarchy is fluid. The scary thing about them is the younger and younger these guys are getting and it seems like the crimes are getting more reckless and violent,” he said.


Before the Friday night shooting call, Sims scoured high-crime areas looking for a violation — any violation, large or small — that would allow him to make a stop.

Sims, 35, is just one of 10 investigators on a special unit within the police department tasked with tracking and documenting gang members and responding to other crime trends.

 The stops Sims and the other members of the Crime Suppression Unit make allow them to gather information on suspected or known gang members, which neighborhoods they frequent, their street names and where crimes are committed repeatedly. They look for signs of gang membership such as clothing or tattoos.

Investigators and patrol officers have been logging intelligence on gang members into a database for four to five years, Chattanooga Police Chief Bobby Dodd said.

Sometimes the information leads to arrests because police who get tips on suspects’ street names can get their true identities from the database.

“It gets updated daily,” Dodd said. “Those are the things that help us make an arrest within 24 hours of a crime being committed. It’s used for intelligence, strategic purposes and criminal investigations. It’s a very good tool.”

Investigators in other states use that same type of data to build cases to prosecute gang members.


Since 2007, Tennessee Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris has been working on what has become known as the “crooks and guns” package as part of an effort to get tough on crime.

While none of the laws is designed to target gangs, lawmakers are making progress in toughening sentences for the crimes that gang members routinely commit, he said.

“We’re working on the budget that’s to be proposed in the upcoming session. It’s been a priority of mine all these years, and it will continue to be,” Norris said.

A revised bill for the upcoming session, SB 691, would increase the sentence for anyone “acting in concert” when committing aggravated rape, attempted first-degree murder or carjacking.

“I’m optimistic we will [pass it.] We are steadily tightening the noose on gang activity,” Norris said.

Often bills don’t get passed if they will end up costing too much.

Norris worked to pass a similar bill in 2009 that included second-degree murder, attempted second-degree murder, especially aggravated robbery, robbery and aggravated robbery.

The legislation would have resulted in an additional $17 million in police, prosecution and incarceration costs, according to legislative estimates.

“Currently, there’s a proposal that costs about $1.5 million that would go after folks who commit three specific offenses,” said Guy Jones, deputy director of the District Attorney’s Conference in Nashville. “He [Norris] has had to whittle down our bill in having some hope of passing it.”

This year, after paring down the list of crimes with tougher sentences, the estimated cost of SB 691 dropped to $1.3 million.

“We do have a very cumbersome process for showing someone is a member of a gang,” Jones said. “We need to update it.”

Meanwhile, Chattanooga’s death toll connected to gang members, mainly from gun violence, continues to rise.

On Oct. 23, a man clad in all black and armed with an assault rifle walked down the 1900 block of Walker Street, shooting up numerous residences. Bullets struck five people, killing 22-year-old Vandaryl Rivers and grazing a 2-year-old boy.

Rivers had tattoos reading “Goon Squad,” the name of a criminal street gang that has gained notoriety in other cities.

No arrest has been made in the case.


When Sims pulls up to the shooting scene, a witness flags him down and says one of the shooters lives in the East Lake Court projects.

Two women and one man have been shot. Paramedics haven’t arrived yet.

Darrell Sims, 33, was shot in the left side of his chest. Veronica Suttles, 39, was shot in the abdomen, and her sister, Vanessa Suttles, 37, was shot in the wrist. Sims and Veronica Suttles were initially listed in critical condition Friday night. On Saturday, their condition was upgraded to stable, according to police. Vanessa Suttles was treated and released. Witnesses tell police the shooting stemmed from an argument at a nearby home.

Sims calls dispatch to tell other officers to head to East Lake Court, where four men clad in black coveralls were seen heading, according to accounts. One of them might be armed with a rifle.

Sims enters the patrol car and begins driving down side streets a couple of blocks from the projects.

“Do you see anyone?” he asks, his eyes scanning the courtyard areas.

He quickly maneuvers the car back toward the precinct office inside the development, where a witness said one of the shooters stays nearby.

Sims jumps out, grabs his rifle from the trunk and heads toward the development with as many as a dozen other arriving officers.

Word travels fast, and residents are milling around outside, clutching small children.

An officer makes contact with the father of one teen suspected of being involved in the shooting.

“Are you saying my son shot someone? Are they dead?” the man asks.

Sims and Investigator Jon Watkins explain that officers will have to talk to his son to clear him of any involvement. The 15-year-old was the victim of a shooting in August.

“The sooner he talks to us the better, you feel me?” Watkins says, looking intently at the man. “If we’re not looking for him, someone else is.”

The father says he last saw his son wearing his black coat and a pair of dark pants. He said he was going to one of his girlfriends’ houses.

The man turns toward the patrol car, away from Watkins, with tears beginning to well up in his eyes. He fights back the tears and turns to talk with investigators again.

Sims and other officers check one more residence before heading to a house in the 2800 block of Fifth Avenue, where about seven young men eventually come out of the house with arms raised. Among the boys taken into custody for interviews is the teen they’re looking for.

His father appears on the street and is ordered back by Sims.

The teens are loaded into the back of patrol cars and taken in for questioning.

A 16-year-old and 17-year-old face charges of attempted first-degree murder and three counts of aggravated assault in connection with the Fifth Avenue shooting. Jerry Springs, 18, faces charges of accessory after the fact and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Two 14-year-olds, a 16-year-old and a 17-year-old were charged with accessory after the fact.

And officers slowly return to patrol until the next gunshots ring out.