Battling gangs across TN/GA state lines - WRCBtv.com | Chattanooga News, Weather & Sports

Battling gangs across TN/GA state lines

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HAMILTON COUNTY, TN. (WRCB) -- Their crimes may be more visible when gang members commit them in Chattanooga.

But law officers say more of the suspects live in or flee to, Northwest Georgia.

"Gang members don't respect state lines or county lines," Chattanooga's Gangs Task Force coordinator Boyd Patterson says.

"But if we have the need to go across lines," Walker County (GA) Sheriff Steve Wilson says, "now we can do that."

Thursday afternoon, Wilson, Walker County Commissioner Bebe Heiskell, Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger and Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond signed a Joint Mutual Aid Agreement designed to drop some of the jurisdictional boundaries that they say have handicapped efforts to battle gangs in the Tennessee Valley.

"This is not about our guys coming in--our guys going to Walker County and enforcing other laws," Sheriff Hammond says. "This is for a specific purpose."

"And it won't be our folks are coming in without somebody to guide us," Sheriff Wilson says.

Hamilton and Walker counties already share information and pool efforts to gather intelligence on gang activities through their membership in C.A.G.E. (Chattanooga Area Gang Enforcement).

Such sharing has drawn Sheriff Wilson to conclude that Walker County is home to more than two dozen people with gang affiliations.

The compact is the latest in a series of efforts Chattanooga has undertaken to battle a growing problem with gang violence.

Earlier this year, Tennessee's General Assembly toughened the state's version of RICO (Racketeer-Influenced Corrupt Organizations) to allow for more flexibility and longer sentences by defining membership in gangs as participation in an ongoing criminal conspiracy.

But if the 'conspiracy' hatches and bears fruit in Tennessee and Georgia, which state prosecutes the suspects?

"The short answer is that it could be either," Patterson says. "The place where the witnesses are, the investigation originates---typically that's where the prosecution is brought."

Prosecutors also will factor in where the greater of the crimes occurs; greater, defined as the origin of the bulk of the evidence, and which state would offer the more severe penalty.

"We're starting with the Sheriffs, because their jurisdictions cover their whole counties," Patterson says. "But we'll be expanding to the municipalities within, and the prosecutors themselves."

"The community's already safer as a result of this," Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield says. "And by community, I mean the whole, broader community, from Chattanooga into Northwest Georgia.

"Chattanooga is in a unique position," Patterson says. "Studies have shown that gang activity has tripled in Tennessee communities with populations of 50,000 or less."

By that definition, such communities have an "emerging gang problem."

"We can be pro-active, and deal with the emerging problem now," Patterson says.

"The steps we take will be exponentially more effective than if we wait five years or six years, until the gangs have entrenched."

Patterson, Hammond and Wilson confirm the timing is no accident, but that 'confidentiality of operational details' prevents them from disclosing when such new cooperation might bear fruit.

"You'll just have to watch the news and read the headlines," Patterson deadpans, "to find out where the busts are."

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