Po­lice in­ter­view from 2014 raises ques­tions about help­ing ver­sus hurt­ing gang mem­bers

Chattanooga Times Free Press - - FRONT PAGE - BY ZACK PETER­SON STAFF WRITER

Amid a deadly 2014 cross­fire be­tween two Chat­tanooga street gangs, a 40-year-old man sat down with three po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tors, told them what he knew about the re­cent homi­cide of a 13-yearold, outed a few drug deal­ers and of­fered to ar­range a peace­mak­ing meet­ing so of­fi­cers could ar­rest any­one il­le­gally car­ry­ing a firearm.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tors had an end goal with Tommy Hub­bard: They wanted him to be a “silent killer” and give in­for­ma­tion on his friends in the Athens Park Bloods and Bounty Hunter Bloods. They told Hub­bard “there ain’t gonna be no more passes” and asked if he could ar­range a meet­ing with mem­bers of both groups so of­fi­cers could serve a search war­rant. Oth­er­wise? “We’re go­ing to fo­cus on y’all un­til you go to prison,” said one of the of­fi­cers. “Doesn’t mat­ter if it’s a [drug] dime bag, doesn’t mat­ter if it’s a mur­der.”

A re­view of ar­rest records and news­pa­per ar­chives sug­gests the pro­posed bust never hap­pened. But the con­ver­sa­tion, which was recorded and posted on Face­book last week­end, raises ques­tions about the way some of­fi­cers use peo­ple in the most dan­ger­ous and ne­glected neigh­bor­hoods to fa­cil­i­tate crime.

“The big­gest part to me was the of­fi­cer telling Hub­bard that he can be a silent killer,” said Marie Mott, a

Chat­tanooga ac­tivist who first played some of the con­ver­sa­tion this week on her 92.7 FM ra­dio show. “[It im­plies], if you can han­dle this for us, we’ll look the other way and just go after the [other] gang. And we’ve got bod­ies stack­ing up in the mean­time.”

The Times Free Press in­ter­viewed 10 at­tor­neys, com­mu­nity mem­bers and other crim­i­nal jus­tice ex­perts about the Hub­bard con­ver­sa­tion. The le­gal con­sen­sus was this kind of po­lice work is not un­com­mon, and it doesn’t ap­pear to meet the lim­ited def­i­ni­tion of en­trap­ment.

“This comes from the U.S. Supreme Court [from a 1958 case]: Fa­cil­i­ta­tion is not en­trap­ment,” said de­fense at­tor­ney Jonathan Turner. “I would ab­so­lutely con­sider that record­ing fa­cil­i­ta­tion. They set the meet­ing up, but they didn’t make any­body pick up a gun [which would be a crime if they’re a con­victed felon or on pro­ba­tion]. They fa­cil­i­tated them to com­mit a crime.”

Oth­ers say the Hub­bard con­ver­sa­tion shows how cities of­ten go with a pros­e­cu­tion-first ap­proach that ne­glects the un­der­ly­ing fac­tors that cause peo­ple to join gangs and carry weapons in self de­fense. Mean­while, vi­o­lence con­tin­ues.

“Mostly these tech­niques are not very ef­fec­tive, and even when they show some short-term ben­e­fit [like a drop in crime], they do so through more in­tim­i­da­tion and fear-based tac­tics,” said Alex Vi­tale, a so­ci­ol­ogy pro­fes­sor at Brook­lyn Col­lege who writes about polic­ing. “And these folks al­ready have lives filled with fear and in­tim­i­da­tion, so if we’re try­ing to give them a hand up, this is the wrong ap­proach to take.”

Since 2014, the city has used the Vi­o­lence Re­duc­tion Ini­tia­tive, or VRI, and other fo­cused de­ter­rence pro­grams to curb gan­gre­lated gun vi­o­lence. The idea is, vi­o­lent gang mem­bers are given an ul­ti­ma­tum: Stop shoot­ing and get help through so­cial ser­vice pro­grams, or keep shoot­ing and face the full brunt of the law through tar­geted polic­ing.

In past years, law en­force­ment has dif­fered on best ap­proaches: After Chat­tanooga po­lice pro­vided the Times Free Press with a list of ar­rests that showed VRI of­fend­ers get­ting lit­tle jail time, Hamil­ton County Dis­trict At­tor­ney Gen­eral Neal Pinkston coun­tered that mis­de­meanor ar­rests aren’t ef­fec­tive enough. He said in 2016 gangs should be pros­e­cuted as crim­i­nal en­ter­prises, which is what he’s do­ing with his 55-per­son rack­e­teer­ing case against the Athens Park Bloods.

The city’s so­cial ser­vices side has also had ups and downs.

The Times Free Press pre­vi­ously re­ported a ma­jor fund­ing source pulled out of the VRI in Au­gust 2014 and that city of­fi­cials may have in­flated the num­ber of peo­ple get­ting jobs and ser­vices through non­profit aid. In 2018, the city coun­cil de­clined to re­new its con­tract with one of those non­prof­its, Fa­thers to the Father­less, which of­fered men­tor­ing to at-risk youth.

The new so­lu­tion is to hire three in­ter­ven­tion spe­cial­ists with the po­lice depart­ment who will co­or­di­nate with Pub­lic Safety Di­rec­tor Troy Rogers and Joe Hunter, the pro­gram co­or­di­na­tor for the Teen Em­pow­er­ment Cen­ter. They will be work­ing full time by mid-Jan­uary, said Kerry Hayes, Chat­tanooga Mayor Andy Berke’s deputy chief of staff.

The ef­forts have shown some pos­i­tive signs: Though vi­o­lence was high in 2015, 2016 and 2017, Chat­tanooga homi­cides de­creased be­tween 2017 and 2018 from 34 to 21, data shows.

But many gang mem­bers, who are of­ten re­lated, re­main trapped in vi­o­lence, poverty with lit­tle po­lit­i­cal power or op­por­tu­nity, Mott said. They are used by po­lice or pros­e­cu­tors to solve big­ger cases, but their own sit­u­a­tions don’t of­ten im­prove as a re­sult, Vi­tale said.

“We’re never con­cerned about why peo­ple are do­ing this stuff,” Mott said on her ra­dio show. “There’s noth­ing to do in this city in ar­eas where pre­dom­i­nantly peo­ple of color live in … [The of­fi­cer in the record­ing] didn’t say we will help you tran­si­tion. He didn’t say I’m go­ing to talk to the mayor about em­ploy­ment, or I’m go­ing reach out to the churches and see what they can do. Or at least of­fer some as­sis­tance— emo­tional or phys­i­cal sup­port in schools, that’s Fa­thers to the Father­less. But we pulled the plug on this [and spend] mil­lions of dol­lars on guns and sur­veil­lance.”

Law en­force­ment per­son­nel have to gather in­for­ma­tion to ei­ther solve crimes or pre­vent them, and some­times they toss out false in­for­ma­tion to get peo­ple talk­ing, at­tor­neys said. But each in­ves­ti­ga­tor is dif­fer­ent. While some may use such in­for­ma­tion to make an im­me­di­ate ar­rest, oth­ers may use an in­former to make a buy for them, or save the in­for­ma­tion for a larger case down the road, at­tor­neys said. In the Hub­bard con­ver­sa­tion, the Chat­tanooga in­ves­ti­ga­tors say they are tired of the vi­o­lence and sug­gest the gangs can co-ex­ist with po­lice if the worst four or five mem­bers on both sides are in­car­cer­ated.

Pinkston’s spokes­woman could not con­firm Fri­day if the con­ver­sa­tion is a piece of ev­i­dence in the 55-per­son Athens Park Bloods gang rack­e­teer­ing case, say­ing she hadn’t heard the record­ing. Chat­tanooga po­lice spokes­woman Elisa Myzal said the depart­ment did not re­lease in­for­ma­tion in an on­go­ing case and in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Since fall, how­ever, pros­e­cu­tors have been ex­chang­ing ev­i­dence with de­fense at­tor­neys rep­re­sent­ing the rack­e­teer­ing de­fen­dants. And there is a clear link be­tween the Hub­bard con­ver­sa­tion and some of the back­ground in the case.

Hub­bard ap­peared to be speak­ing to law en­force­ment some­time in 2014, after the Jan­uary shoot­ing of 13-year-old Deon­trey Southers, which sparked a Fed­eral Bureau of In­ves­ti­ga­tion probe into the groups. After the Southers homi­cide, mem­bers of the Athens Park Bloods and Bounty Hunter Bloods fired at one an­other sev­eral times. For his part, Hub­bard was shot four times in the hip in Fe­bru­ary 2014.

That vi­o­lence cul­mi­nated in Cortez Sims en­ter­ing a Col­lege Hill Courts apart­ment in Jan­uary 2015 and open­ing fire on an as­so­ci­ate of the Bounty Hunter Bloods; Bianca Hor­ton; Hor­ton’s baby; and Hor­ton’s friend, 20-year-old Talitha Bow­man, who died, pros­e­cu­tors pre­vi­ously said. Hor­ton was later slain in 2016, pros­e­cu­tors say, by Athens Park Blood mem­bers who wanted to pre­vent her from tes­ti­fy­ing against their as­so­ci­ate, Sims, who was still con­victed in the shoot­ing and given a life sen­tence in April 2017.

To date, the Hub­bard record­ing is not the only piece of ev­i­dence that found its way to Face­book. In Oc­to­ber, some­body posted doc­u­ments that showed how area FBI agents have used in­ter­views with co­op­er­at­ing Athens Park Bloods mem­bers and other con­fi­den­tial in­for­mants to build a sub­stan­tial file that pros­e­cu­tors are us­ing as some of their ev­i­dence.

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