Gangs are one of the focus areas of Tennessee Targeted Community Crime Reduction grant partners, a network of city and county law enforcement, government, civic and social organizations and mental health professionals. The potential for future gang violence in Cleveland was the topic of discussion Thursday morning during a monthly meeting of partners at the Bradley County Juvenile Justice Center on Johnson Boulevard.
Juvenile Court Senior Youth Service Officer Nancy Stanfield displayed a map based on data she received from the Bradley County Jail. The data contained names, addresses and gang affiliation of individuals incarcerated in the county jail over a period of six years. The map showed 214 colored dots. Each dot represented the address of an adult member of one of 34 gangs present in Bradley County. The majority of dots were concentrated in South Cleveland though they were scattered throughout the county. The Neo-Nazi group, Aryan Nation, has had the highest population among inmates incarcerated in the jail over that time frame.
“These are the adults,” she said. “When you overlay the juvenile map on this — I know nobody wants to admit or say we have a gang population — it’s out there but it’s not rearing its head like it is in Hamilton County.”
Now that Hamilton County has started its gang unit, she said some of the gangsters are going to flee to outlying counties.
“We can go to any one of these dots and tell you what their name is and their address and everything else, but what got me was how many of the adults (about 50) had gone through the juvenile system,” she said.
Gang members are identified at the jail by a 10-point assessment that includes but is not limited to their own admission, tattoos, writings, clothing and known associates. Information from the county jail can be cross-referenced with juvenile court to identify potential problems that could exist in schools, public housing or elsewhere.
A 10th Judicial Drug Task Force agent, who asked not to be identified because of his undercover work, said the gang problem is exacerbated by the rapid population growth of Cleveland due to jobs created by Wacker, Volkswagen and other big industries which import people from all over the country.
“We’re bringing citizens from Los Angeles, Atlanta and places that are known for gangs into our little pocket of the world and they also bring their lifestyle with them. I don’t work around juveniles a lot, but I know my kids are impressionable with new things,” he said. “You’ve got kids who are moving here because their parents have gotten a job and now they are in our school system explaining how things are where they are from.”
He said gang presence is something that needs to addressed by the whole community and not just legal and law enforcement professionals.
“The potential for violence and crime is unbelievable. Look at Chattanooga. It’s here and as long as Bradley County keeps growing at the rate it’s growing, we’re just going to get bigger problems,” he said.
Some gangs do not like each other and the map shows four living on two blocks, “and why we haven’t had more violence or outbursts from them is beyond me. I think what we need to do is figure out how we can get a hold of the problem,” he said.
Stanfield said there appears to be a truce among gangs, but “eventually, it’s going to explode.”
The youth services officer said she is not saying “the sky is falling, but if we don’t get a handle on this soon, we’re going to be a suburb of Chattanooga. They’re just going to move it here.”
The “handle” is cooperation between law enforcement, social and civic organizations, churches, schools and health organizations.
“The same people who are committing crimes in Chattanooga are committing crimes up here,” the DTF agent said. “They come up here and stay and our people go down there and stay and it’s like one big place now. If Chattanooga had addressed the problem a lot earlier when it first started coming up, we wouldn’t have had the problems we’ve had over the last couple of years. We got a problem and it has the potential to grow into a lot bigger problem.”