Four months after announcing their intent to recommend anti-gang legislation to the Tennessee General Assembly, city officials called the approval of a bill to make gang activity prosecutable under the state's racketeering laws a "landmark" moment.
The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Vince Dean and state Sen. Bo Watson, passed through both chambers of the Legislature earlier this week. It now heads to the desk of Gov. Bill Haslam, who is expected to sign it into law.
"This bill is going to give police officers another tool, a really good tool," Dean said during a press conference held at City Hall Wednesday. "It's kind of like going from a screwdriver to an electric drill. It's something that they can really use to put away the worst of the worst."
Under Tennessee's current Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations—or RICO—law, criminal "enterprises" that can be held to higher penalties for criminal activities include groups participating in the distribution of controlled substances or the sexual exploitation of minors. Once the new bill is signed into effect, the RICO statute will apply to gangs.
In remarks to reporters, Mayor Ron Littlefield said he was "a little giddy" upon receiving news of the bill's passage.
Littlefield added that the legislation would not be "an instant cure" to Chattanooga's growing gang problem but rather a "step along the way."
"Nothing is an instant cure," Littlefield said. "This is a systemic problem affecting cities across the country. A lot of cities have more experience with it than Chattanooga does. We have an emerging gang problem. But we are picking and choosing and utilizing those avenues that have been proven to be most fruitful, and now we have the best legislation available."
Littlefield said he opted to seek legislative approval for initiatives focused on gang suppression and prosecution first because timing came when the Legislature was in session. The bill was not a part of Haslam's legislative package for the recently closed legislative session, nor was it part of the governor's budget amendment.
Watson, who was on hand with Dean to offer remarks, said the bill had stood on merit.
"It did not have much difficulty passing," he said.
Although the law is expected to go into effect sometime this summer, officials emphasized it would take considerable time before any results are seen.
Law enforcement officials will not be able to begin building cases against gang members—many of which could take months or even years—until the new law receives the governor's signature.
Boyd Patterson, coordinator for Littlefield's gang task force, said he was confident the law would play an integral role in suppressing gang activity across the city.
"These are big cases," Patterson said. "They take a long time to put together, but they have a high reward for the state in that RICO enables us to prosecute and convict gang members by the dozen. It puts the entire gang on trial … it's one more reason for all the at-risk youth and gang members to accept the outreach that this task force is equally committed to providing."
Last year, Chattanooga recorded 25 homicides, more than half of which are thought to be gang related.