TACKLING JUVENILE VIOLENCE
RECENT HOMICIDES PUT SPOTLIGHT ON EFFORTS TO HELP CITY’S YOUTH
Aspate of gun violence in Chattanooga over the past three weeks has resulted in 13 shootings that placed juveniles at the center of three homicides. The tally adds to the growing list of youth accused of violent crime.
So far this year, five juveniles have been arrested in connection with five homicides. That’s up from two last year and none in 2016.
And police say a juvenile was responsible for this year’s first homicide.
Thirty-seven-year-old Malcolm McKoy was shot Jan. 25 in the 2200 block of East 25th Street. He was taken to a hospital and died two days later. A 17-year-old was arrested and charged in the killing
two days later.
Five months later, on June 29, Christopher Robinson, 46, was shot and killed during a home invasion. He died before paramedics arrived at an apartment in the 2300 block of Hickory Valley Road. Three suspects, including a 17-year-old, have been arrested.
Then on Sept. 24, police found 19-year-old Shawnquell Stanfield near the 2400 block of Wilder Street on the ground with multiple gunshot wounds. A 17-year-old was arrested shortly after.
On Sept. 29, Areeyon Lane, 18, died after being shot at a Speedway gas station at 1330 E. Third St. Two suspects including a 17-year-old were arrested. Police later determined Lane was the suspect in a homicide the day before.
Eighteen-year-old Iziyah Spence was shot in the head Oct. 4 in the 2000 block of Portland Street. He died four days later on Monday.
The suspect? A 14-yearold.
Overall, violence in the city is down. So far this year, there have been 83 shootings compared to 96 in 2017. Homicides are down by almost half, with 18 this year compared to 30 in 2017.
And violence among youth in the inner city isn’t a new problem — this year’s numbers don’t stray far from previous years. But local community leaders say the recent shootings draw attention to an important social issue they and the city have been working hard to combat for years.
THE CONSEQUENCES OF USING A GUN
Seven murder cases — including a new charge in a 2009 cold case — are pending in Hamilton County Juvenile Court. Judge Robert Philyaw said that is a record number of homicides for the county to see at one time.
“We’ve had a real rash of juveniles not recognizing or appreciating the consequences of carrying and using a gun,” Philyaw said. “It’s disturbing and distressing to see [lives lost] because of a few minutes’ reaction or action, and taking temporary problems and making them permanent problems.”
Juveniles are often recruited to carry out crimes because of the idea that they won’t get punishments that are too harsh, Philyaw said. But he calls that “a myth and a lie.”
“There really is a lack of consciousness with a 16-, 17-year-old brain about the permanency and the consequences of pulling a trigger,” he said.
A judge looks at everything on a juvenile’s record, including any previous efforts to rehabilitate, how the child responded to those efforts and whether the offense was committed in an aggressive or premeditated manner.
Those factors determine whether a child can still be rehabilitated within the juvenile justice system, as opposed to being transferred to criminal court, where the juvenile will be tried as an adult.
If found guilty, a deposition hearing is held to decide what can be done to rehabilitate the child and prevent him or her from repeating the same or similar offenses. In some cases, that means being placed into an “intense probation” program called SHOCAP, or Serious Habitual Offender Community Action Plan.
There are 13 minors in that program, and they’re each assigned a probation officer, said Chattanooga police Sgt. Vinnie Holoman, juvenile unit supervisor.
The program has four phases, and probation officers randomly check in on probationers to make sure they’re not in violation of their conditions.
The first phase is house arrest for 30-45 days, during which minors can go only to school and/or work. Once that time is up, a 7 p.m. curfew is imposed in the second phase, 8:30 p.m. in the third and 10 p.m. in the fourth.
“SHOCAP is the last stop before going to state custody,” Holoman said.
If juveniles violate the terms of their probation, they may be placed back on house arrest or they may be placed in the custody of the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services’ juvenile justice division at a secured facility.
In the past, juveniles have had to spend up to a year and a half in the secured facilities, Philyaw said, but with the 2018 Juvenile Justice Reform Act, the time has been shortened to no more than six months. With more serious charges, such as homicide, the court may order juveniles to stay at the facility until their 19th birthdays.
Regardless, six months is not enough time to rehabilitate violent juvenile offenders, said Philyaw, who recently took to social media to share his frustration.
“Why is juvenile justice and serious rehab options for young offenders so important in Tennessee? Because I have five murder cases pending in Hamilton County Juvenile Court today,” a Sept. 28 tweet by Philyaw tagging Tennessee lawmakers read. “Make it six” he tweeted the following day. Now there are seven. Deciding how to handle juvenile cases is a balancing act, Philyaw said.
“Nobody likes locking up kids for the sake of locking up kids, and that is not the goal of juvenile justice,” he said. “But we can’t short-circuit that too much and then have a child turn 18 and all of a sudden … they’re down in the adult criminal system, and we’ve failed that child many times.”
EARLY INTERVENTION COULD BE KEY
While it’s not clear what is driving the uptick in juvenile homicides — police haven’t said whether they are gang-related — people including Joe Hunter, program coordinator for the city’s Teen Empowerment Center, are actively trying to quell the violence before it starts.
The program has people on the ground in the Youth and Family Development centers and Orchard Knob, Brainerd and Tyner middle and high schools.
“We are now seeing this stuff stir up, and we’re going to continue doing what we do in engaging and intervening, doing intervention and prevention,” Hunter said.
Hunter, affectionately known in the community as “Uncle Joe,” knew Iziyah Spence, the 18-year-old shot and killed by a 14-year-old. Spence attended the program and Hunter hugged him several times.
“When you hug a boy, and then the boy is in the hospital fighting for his life, that hurts,” he said.
“He was laughing all the time and telling jokes,” Hunter said. “I didn’t see him as a threat to nobody. So how this happened, who knows?”
Hunter is a former gang member and still has bullets lodged in his body. He started a junior gang at just 8 years old, so he understands the children who get wrapped up in violent behavior.
“Just like the Crips are runnin’ the Crips, their little brother wanna be a Crip,” he said. “What else do he wanna be? He don’t see no lawyers and doctors coming at his house or walking down his street. Ain’t no examples of being nothin’ else but [a Crip], and now I’m scared ’cuz they shootin’ in my momma’s house. So I got to carry a gun.”
Hunter also pointed to the deep-seated trauma some children experience as a factor that leads to them falling into violent behavior patterns.
“Just like that little boy that’s scared, that little girl’s scared, too,” he said. “That little girl is not taught to be a princess. She’s taught to be tough. … And that’s part of survival, baby. They survivin’. They not livin’.”
“A lot of people that don’t live in the hood and ain’t never been connected to it, they don’t understand it. They stand back and they point fingers. But that little girl needs a daddy. … Without the discipline of a father in a home and a community that wraps its arms around you and disciplines you and supports you, we have a lot of kids that are just loose.”
So Hunter and other Youth and Family Development leaders work to build strong relationships with students through the Teen Empowerment Program. The program, which has been in place since January, serves about 20 students at each of its locations within schools and YFD centers. It goes directly after ganginvolved children or those who are prone to becoming gang members.
“We are putting ourselves in the locations where the children are before the sparks fire,” Hunter said. “And when they do, we can be there to help stop retaliation and we can be there to embrace the young people that’s involved in it.”
The way Hunter works is by mentoring the children and physically keeping up with them. If they’re in school, if they’re in the juvenile detention center, that’s where he goes, because consistency is his key.
“There is no [positive] consistency in their lives,” he said. “So I’m consistent with the love of Jesus Christ that I share with these kids every day everywhere I go.”
If children can stick with him and follow his rules and lessons for a year and a half, they become his sons, he said. So when the news hits about a death or an arrest, it takes a toll on him.
“I cry a lot,” Hunter said. “I pray a lot and I hurt a lot. It motivates me to get up in the morning and go save the next one. ’Cause all of ’em can’t die. All of ’em can’t go to jail. … Let’s do something with ’em. Don’t just let ’em get older.”
One of the exercises he does with the children is to take one word each month and ask them to embody its meaning. He takes the realities of their lives and relates it to a word.
This month’s word is empathy.
“I want you to feel what another feels,” he said. “I want you to feel what it feels like if you were on the ground getting beat. Would you want somebody to help you?”
“That still doesn’t mean that you’re not gonna have some beef and some uneducated kids with pistols that’s shootin’ each other, or some accidental shootings,” he said. But “by being there and having a relationship with them before it happens, we’ve earned the right to be heard when things start happening.” LAW ENFORCEMENT’S ROLE
The Chattanooga Police Department has been trying to build public trust through its community policing initiative since 2014 under former Chief Fred Fletcher, and it recently increased its efforts in engaging specifically with youth.
While juvenile suspects have been charged in five of this year’s 18 homicides, police Chief David Roddy said that’s not the norm.
But even so, officers are being trained in what adverse childhood experiences are so they can have a better understanding of how trauma physiologically affects children, he said.
“Not only are we arming our officers with a better understanding of what [trauma] looks like, we’re making sure that we continue to find as many different ways that we can to help our officers engage with these children,” Roddy said.
Some of those engagement opportunities include programs such as Coloring with a Cop or Big in Blue, a partnership with the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America.
But officers aren’t limited to just specific programs, Roddy said.
“It’s kind of an under-riding current within the police department of, ‘If you find a way to positively engage a child, you’re doing it right.’”
For example, some officers will carry a football with them in their patrol cars and stop to throw the ball back and forth with a group of children and just start a conversation.
“We absolutely want to reach out and support and engage with any young men and women that may be represented in [current juvenile cases],” Roddy said. “So maybe in 2019, they’re not one of those numbers.”
Contact staff writer Rosana Hughes at rhughes@timesfreepress. com or 423- 757-6327 with tips or story ideas. Follow her on Twitter @HughesRosana.
Local officials are hoping to use intervention and prevention programs to slow youth violence.
Crime scene tape marks the spot where a shooting happened Tuesday night on W. 40th St.