A recent partnership was announced between the Walker County, Georgia and Hamilton County, Tennessee sheriffs departments intended to reduce some of the jurisdictional impediments that stymie efforts by both to fight gang activity in the region. Leaders from both counties gathered to sign a Joint Mutual Aid Agreement meant to ensure cooperation in the pursuit and prosecution of gang members.
Though crime may take place in Chattanooga, that’s not always where the criminals stay. Often times, suspects either live or flee to Northwest Georgia after engaging in crime in Tennessee. The gang members use the county and state lines to their advantage, hampering investigators on both sides.
The two counties are already fairly closely tied, sharing information and resources as part of their membership in the Chattanooga Area Gang Enforcement initiative. Both agencies have taken pains to ensure the public realizes that this agreement does not extend beyond gang activities. Hamilton County officials have been clear that no Georgia sheriffs will be permitted to come to Tennessee to enforce laws other than those relating to gang crime.
The action has been taken because of a recent rise in gang activity throughout the state. Studies indicate that gang activity has tripled in Tennessee communities with populations of 50,000 or less, meaning that smaller communities across the Tennessee Valley Region are feeling the impact of increased gang violence. Law enforcement officials hope that by tackling the issue now they can avoid even more draconian measures years down the road when the gangs would have had the chance to become even more entrenched.
The deal is the latest in a series of moves by Chattanooga to battle a growing problem with gang violence. Earlier this year, the Tennessee General Assembly beefed up the state’s existing laws regarding RICO (Racketeer-Influenced Corrupt Organizations) which are meant to permit more flexibility in defining what is a gang in the state. The new legislation broadens the definition to include participation in any ongoing criminal conspiracy.
Officials have grown tired of geography complicating police investigations and took steps to minimize the impact of state lines. For instance, if a conspiracy is found to exist in Tennessee but members later flee to Georgia, which agency is in charge of the prosecution? The fact is even with the recent pact the answer is not crystal clear. Responsibility could fall to either state; the location of witnesses, criminal evidence, experts, etc., all play a role in deciding where the prosecution occurs. Other factors include where the greater crime occurred and which state offers the most severe penalties.
The two counties started their partnership with the sheriff’s offices because the sheriffs’ jurisdictions cover both counties. However, this is just the first step in a much larger process of cooperation and coordination. As the program gains traction the goal is to expand it to include municipalities and even the prosecutors offices of both counties.
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