published Thursday, May 10th, 2012

Recreation centers a lure for Chattanooga gang members

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    Chattanooga police officers stand May 2 near a broken window at Eastdale Recreation Center on Moss Dr. after a shooting took place at the center.

Jacqueline Dowell has lived in Washington Hills for 48 years and what she sees at the neighborhood's recreation center worries her.

She sees older groups of boys in their late teens and early 20s sometimes loitering in the parking lot or nearby, hanging out with younger boys. The older ones may be gang members, trying to lure the young ones into the lifestyle, she said.

"I've been fussing about that for years," she said. "They come and hang out. They need to ID every one of the children coming out to the rec centers. ... That's the first step to cleaning these places out."

The city's recreation centers may be acting as recruitment centers for local gang members, according to some concerned residents who participated Wednesday in a discussion hosted by the city's Neighborhood Services and Community Development Department.

The discussion is part of a series of roundtable meetings directed by the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies and part of a citywide report being gathered about gangs. Information from the roundtable discussions will go into the report, which will also feature surveys of students and faculty in schools, as well as statistics collected about the neighborhoods and crime.

On Wednesday, about 40 to 50 neighborhood leaders discussed the prevalence of gangs in the community, how the community perceives the problem and what they believe could be possible solutions.

Brian Smith, public relations coordinator for the city's Parks and Recreation Department, said the centers are fully staffed and gang activity is not tolerated.

"We make sure we monitor what goes on outside, whether it's with staff or cameras outside," he said.

Among the rules at the centers, children who enter the centers cannot sag their pants or wear gang colors, he said.

"It's hard to control what goes on outside the centers, but we can control what goes on in our centers by asking for respect, by following rules that everyone has to follow," Smith said.

Last week, 18-year-old Elijah Flemming was wounded in the shoulder when he was shot outside the front door of Eastdale Recreation Center just after it closed at 8 p.m. He was leaving the center after playing basketball, said Dank Hawkins, who manages the center.

Hawkins says he had never seen Ricky C. Rogers, 18, who police have charged with shooting, participating in any of the center's programs.

Hawkins said that, at a Eastdale neighborhood meeting this week, "I had to reassure our residents this is a safe haven. It's OK to have safety concerns, but don't be afraid. That was an isolated incident."

Hawkins, who also participated in one of the roundtable discussions, said he makes a concerted effort to pick up on clues that some teens may be in a gang.

"I pick up on certain characteristics, handshakes, certain things they are wearing," Hawkins said. "I just keep my eye on it."

He pointed out some of the recreation centers such as Avondale, Eastdale and Washington Hills are located in gang hot spots.

"[Gang members] try to be discreet. See those guys walking in right now?" he asked Wednesday. "We don't know ... if they're a part of something. But late at night in the wee hours, [gang members] used to be on our ballfield. Some of the residents say they're up here at late hours initiating people and things of that nature. After hours, we're closed, there's nothing we can do.

"I tell the residents, anyone can see from any window, all you have to do is dial 911. You don't have to give your name. All you have to do is tell them they're on city property and that's it."

Dowell said in her neighborhood, even with increased police presence, gang members are a recurring problem.

"Police run them off, but they come right back," she said.

Chattanooga Police Chief Bobby Dodd did not respond to a message seeking comment.

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