At that moment the entire room stood in unison. Almost immediately, a line formed to shake the hands of the men standing. Their once worrisome faces had turned to smiles. The moment turned surreal as I began looking around the room to see police officers and public officials talking with the men as if they were everyday acquaintances.
Curtis Penney, Investigator, Chattanooga Police Department
As I stood on the sidewalk outside of an undisclosed building, I watched as the sun gave way to the horizon. I had no need to look at my watch as this daily ritual was indicative enough of the darkness that would surely follow, as well as a signaling of the day of reckoning that was set to begin. All I could do was stand there and entertain my thoughts of the last few months of groundwork that led to this monumental moment.
My thoughts turned to anxious anticipation of their arrival. Slowly, a few cautiously entered the parking lot, constantly looking for men in raid vests to swarm on them, but those men never came. As they made their way down the long sidewalk their strides became increasingly slower as if they almost knew without certainty that they were walking to their own demise. They didn’t need to speak as their faces told the story of their thoughts: “What do they know?” “Have I been set up?” “I’m probably going to jail.” That walk down the sidewalk seemed to last as long as the days leading up to this. The frequency of arrival began to increase and each new arrival seemed to mimic the slow, painstaking shuffle down the sidewalk. To speed up the process, and to hopefully break the ice, I finally spoke.
“Don’t worry, it’s not a setup.” The 6’8”, 380-lb. man that I’ve only known as a gang member who sells a significant amount of narcotics responded by cracking a nervous smile. I followed up with, “Trust me, if this was a set up you would already be in handcuffs.”
The men were ushered to a waiting area that generally serves as a conference room. There they sat almost silent, trying to piece together what this was all about. The room had representatives from just about every major criminal street gang in the city of Chattanooga. Their issues with each other, if any, had no presence here. Their faces made it apparent that the passing time had turned their thoughts to fear and, even more so, uncertainty. The door became the focal point for everyone when anyone entered; most likely, the new arrival was a face they recognized. Julia Fielding from the Tennessee Board of Probation and Parole greeted them with a smile and reassured them that they would all be leaving without handcuffs on.
As she departed the room, some skeptics still lingered and a few others looked dejected because of the lack of information on what was in store for them. I decided to speak once again. The sound of my voice shifted all the focus upon me. I knew that speaking would open me up to ridicule, possibly provoking questions I couldn’t answer, which would only create further skepticism.
“It is important for you all to understand that none of you are going to jail tonight. What’s going to take place is very important and we need for you to focus on what is being given to you. If you are sitting there and your focus is on the idea that you are about to go to jail, then you are missing vital parts to this.”
A few sighs were heard while others nodded in agreement.
I had been directed to give the next part of the presentation and I felt almost silly telling a group of gang members, many of whom had been to prison, that they would need to go to the bathroom before the start of the program.
I explained that the program would take anywhere from 60 to 90 minutes. At that moment the same skeptics leaned forward in their seats, gasping at the prospect of the unknown process taking that long. After a few comments I broke into my next piece. “All of you have been chosen for a reason. When we sat down to choose those that need to be here we wanted to choose the ones that we felt would benefit the most from this. Some of you will realize immediately that this is a way to get a second chance, some of you will realize it later, and some will wish they had.”
“Some of you are on the fence, out there doing bad and making a path for your road to prison, some of….”
I was interrupted by a known Gangster Disciple, one that I quite honestly don’t like at all: “So, you saying we out there doing bad.”
I turned to address him, “That’s not what I said.”
“That’s what it sounded like to me,” spoken by an unknown person from behind me.
The once silent room was now filled with chatter that was fueling the skeptics. The skeptics were gaining the support of the uncertain ones. It’s an uneasy feeling being the only white guy in a room full of gang members from various factions. They may not collectively agree on much, but one thing they all can stand together on is their hatred or mistrust for the police. I knew ahead of time that speaking to them on anything outside of the business at hand was an open invitation to ridicule.
I’ve been in this spot many times before in my career, my words twisted or overridden by assumptions, the doubtful ear waiting to exploit any single word to fuel their reservations. If you stop talking at this point, you have only given them reassurance in their pre-conceived ideas, and have surely lost any ground with those that were on the fence. If you don’t choose your words wisely, you fall into the trap. It’s at this point that one has to talk fast and be clear, using examples to illustrate the message.
I spoke sharply to regain order, “Okay, look….let me finish before you start drawing your own conclusions. I didn’t say you all were doing bad. The ones that are doing bad, they know who they are and we certainly know who they are. I’m not going to stand in here and tell you each other’s business. There is someone on that list that won’t be coming here tonight because he chose not to take this seriously. He’s a convicted felon carrying around a gun with the serial number filed off….he’s done. There are people on that list who have chosen not to come, and after it’s all said and done they will wish to God they did. After this is over, you will see why. Regardless of whether you are doing bad or not, you all have been deemed messengers, you are voices within your group. What you hear and what you see tonight must be taken back to your groups.”
A different Gangster Disciple looked at me with doubt and said, “And you think they are going to listen to us?” A few looks of disbelief were shared around the room while others sit in reflection.
“Ok, let me ask you this. If you told your friends that the Feds were coming down the street, would they believe you? Of course they would. It’s a fairly simple message and that’s all we are going to give you to take back. We are not saying you are leaders of your group or anything like that. When this is over you will understand and you will know who you need to tell. It’s not all about the message, there are people here to help you get on the right track and to answer your questions. Trust me, you will have questions.”
At some point I began having a conversation with two members of the Athens Park Bloods about accepting help from police. I openly acknowledged that there is mistrust and that not every police officer is going to be as forthcoming with their willingness to help them. I explained some steps I’ve taken for those in trouble. I shared my experience with some of those who have failed to follow through and ended up in prison. This was my time to expose a bit of myself, to show them I’m human and that what goes on out there does have impact on the lives of not just me, but other police officers as well. “Not every cop is going to be so willing to help. They have given up and become jaded over years of dealing with the drugs, violence, and poverty. I don’t have to like you to give you help. There are people in this room I don’t like, but this project is not personal. If I help them get away from this life, then that’s less they have to see me and less I will have to see them.”
I continued: “I’ve helped keep people out of jail when they needed to be in it. I’ve looked at the bigger picture in some of their lives and tried to get them the help they needed. There is one in particular that failed and it killed me because I knew for so long what he was involved in and what was coming for him. There was not a thing in this world I could do for him. He was set to get a college degree, but now he is getting a mandatory federal sentencing. I’m tired…we are tired of having to talk to the mothers of dead black men.”
As I wound down, Paul Smith entered the room with Mayor Andy Berke, acting Police Chief Stan Maffett, acting Deputy Chief Eric Tucker, and David Woosley. Mr. Smith laid out the setting and rules for the event. He continued by letting them know that the tone for the night was going to be about “respect.” This word was not unfamiliar with this group of men. Respect is often the centerpiece of the gang lifestyle. It is something you earn, or it is something that you fail to give, which often results in violence. The mayor spoke for a moment and ended by walking around the room shaking hands with each of the men seated. The chiefs followed suit by shaking each of their hands and speaking with them momentarily.
Some appeared shy, almost embarrassed, while one Bloodstone Villain in particular seemed taken in by the presence of the mayor. I closely watched, and his handshake seemed incredibly genuine and gracious, grasping with both hands. The group of officials exited the room back into the auditorium. The room seemed a bit more relaxed – the small amount of respect shown had incredibly decreased the amount of tension in the room. Moments later, the door opened once again, this time to let me know that we were ready to begin. The men filed into an auditorium full of people standing silently, mainly police and community members. Paul Smith had explained to them moments prior that everyone would be standing and that they would also stand. “We stand together as a community, and you are a part of this community,” he said.
In the center of the room were 25 chairs for the invitees. A semi-circle of chairs were behind them–mainly police officers, probation officers, district attorneys and community outreach group members. In front of them stood a host of speakers. Mayor Berke was the first to speak and addressed them now in a more formal fashion. He explained that the violence in our city is the reason he ran for mayor and that he is committed to stopping it. He explained the partnership between various law enforcement agencies as well as local service providers and community groups. He tried to impress upon them that things have got to change, and that the invitees are just as important as any other citizen.
Lieutenant Todd Royval, who is dressed in full uniform, took the floor. He explained the law enforcement side of the Violence Reduction Initiative process. He laid out what consequences needed to be communicated back to the invitees’ respective groups. The rules, if you will.
He said, “The first homicide that occurs after this meeting, we are coming after the responsible shooter and those that he associates with.”
He gave a clear and concise example through PowerPoint about what an enforcement action looks like. In this example, he used the homicide of 13 year old Deontrey S––. The police department targeted the Athens Park Bloods and anyone they associate with as part of the enforcement. In all, there were 17 arrests made and four others are facing federal charges. Some of the federal charges were as simple as being a felon in possession of ammunition, which nonetheless carries a very stiff penalty. As the speakers came up, some of the group stared straight ahead while others looked at the floor as if they were in deep reflection. There were one or two others that still seemed a bit confused. The speakers continued to layer on the impact of statements one after another. Speakers that have been where the invitees have been and done what they have done explained where they are now in their lives, and how much better they are because of it. These speakers lived the gang lifestyle, and now they are business owners.
“Each of you are businessmen,” said Richard Bennett. “You’ve just been in the wrong business.” A simple but profound statement.
The mother of Michael Johnson, a known Crip gang member who was slain in 2010 by an unknown suspect, addressed the group. She related the story of the night Michael was killed: the two had just had an argument, but regardless of the argument Michael told his mother he loved her, kissed her, and walked out the door. Just hours later, Ms. Johnson was staring at her dead son after he had been shot during a drive by. It was apparent that this was very hard for her to say, as she began losing her words midway through her speech. She regained her story and started going to each of the men seated telling them she loved them as she grasped both of their hands. For all she knew, one of the men seated could have killed her son, or at least had a hand in it, but it didn’t matter. Ms. Johnson let the group know upfront that she forgave whoever had done it. She made it known that her faith in God had given her the peace she needs to forgive such a devastating life event.
As the program began winding down Mr. Smith took the floor for the last time to invite the men to stay and eat. Mr. Smith concluded the program by saying that we would all stand together. At that moment the entire room stood in unison. Almost immediately, a line formed to shake the hands of the men standing. Their once worrisome faces had turned to smiles. The moment turned surreal as I began looking around the room to see police officers and public officials talking with the men as if they were everyday acquaintances. The Blood Stone Villain who had earlier shared a genuine embrace with the mayor was now standing and talking with him in what seemed to be a friendly conversation. Across the room an Athens Park Blood, and quite possibly the largest man in the room, had taken a full box of pizza from the table. He sat it down in front of second largest man in the room, a police officer assigned to the ATF. They shared conversation over the pizza as what seemed to be two friends, though they were two men who could rarely have an eye to eye conversation. All around the room you saw community groups sharing cards and the promise of opportunity. The conversations begin to wind down and, as the room began to clear, I could once again see the chairs where these men had been seated. I was reminded suddenly that some of those seats were empty. A bit of reality began to set back in. This was not the end; this was just the beginning. We have much work to do, and those who decided not to attend must pay for their failure to comply. An officer walked up to me, “How many do you think will call the number?”
“Doesn’t matter,” I replied. He seemed a bit surprised at my answer: “What do you mean?”
“Essentially we’ve eliminated their outs if they walk out of this room and kill someone,” I explained.
Time and time again, we read stories about a defense attorney who comes into court trying to spare his client by giving this poor pitiful-me routine: “He never had any opportunities, no one cared about him, he’s always been addicted to drugs, he had a rough childhood.” In this instance, it would be damaging for a defense attorney to use that defense. There is not a judge or jury in this land that is going to be sympathetic to someone who was given all of the avenues to escape their lifestyle. They were given opportunities and illustrated consequences if they don’t change. All we can do is wait.