Demetrice Joshen didn’t feel the first bullet hit his head, but the second sliced into his scalp with shocking pain.
He stumbled away from the tan four-door Toyota on 10th Avenue in Chattanooga, Tennessee, away from the shooter who fired four times at 9 a.m. on Oct. 1, 2015.
The 18-year-old ran, jumped a gate into the yard of a nearby house, and kept running. His friend ran right behind him, shouting at Joshen, “You got shot, you got shot!”
Joshen reached up and felt his head, adrenaline pounding. His fingers brushed over two big bulging, bloody knots. He was dizzy and lights flashed past his eyes. His friend leaned close to him.
“Don’t die, don’t die,” his friend said. “We’ll make it to the hospital.”
Joshen could see his friend’s lips moving, but he couldn’t hear a thing.
A neighbor called 911.
“Somebody got shot in the head,” the man told the dispatcher.
…The ambulance arrived six minutes later, and soon Joshen was on a gurney in a hallway at Erlanger hospital, face to face with Chattanooga police Sgt. Josh May.
May knew Joshen as a member of the Rollin 20 Crips, and he knew the Rollin 20 Crips were fighting with the Rollin 20 Bloods. He knew Joshen had been targeted.
So he gave Joshen the standard speech: The way you’re living isn’t sustainable. You just got shot twice in the head. Your older brother is a convicted felon, a gang member. You have examples of what not to do.
May warned Joshen not to retaliate: Don’t shoot back.
Medical personnel pulled two .25-caliber bullets out of Joshen’s head as he sat in the bustling hospital hallway. Joshen still couldn’t hear, so May wrote messages on his notepad and held it up for the teenager to read.
Joshen told May he didn’t see the shooter. The car came from behind, one guy got out, fired four times, jumped back in and drove away. He was just walking around when the shooter pulled up, Joshen explained.
May didn’t buy that story. The .25 is a tiny round, and the shots must have been fired at very close range for Joshen to be deafened by such a small weapon, May said. He guessed that Joshen walked up to the car, leaned in, and then the shooter pulled the trigger.
“He knows who shot him,” May said.
Code of Silence
But if Joshen knows, he isn’t saying.
“I’m still trying to figure out who did it,” Joshen said in April, leaning his slim frame against the creaky iron railing of his mother’s front porch. “If I did that to someone, they’d put the police on me or come back and try to kill me. I know someone is going to slip up and tell the wrong person.”
He said he’d tell police who did it, if he knew. He said he won’t go after the shooter himself.
“I’m not trying to get anything started. I don’t want to lose my life,” he said. “I really see that.”
He won’t shoot back, he said again, and won’t try to retaliate.
But police think he already did.
If Chattanooga’s shootings were spaced out evenly, one person would be shot about every three days.
The city is known throughout the Southeast as a violent place — police recorded 385 shootings between 2013 and 2015 and, so far this year, at least 61 people have been shot in the city, including two pregnant women.
In 2015, a 16-year-old boy was shot and killed while walking in Brainerd. A 19-year-old mother was gunned down on Market Street that same year. In 2014, a 13-year-old boy was killed on his doorstep. A 21-year-old man was shot to death outside an event hall in 2013.
The violence captures the city’s attention, seeping into daily conversations and tainting the city’s image with residents and tourists alike.
People march in anti-crime rallies, holding signs that name the dead, as public officials declare the violence must end.
“This community will not tolerate the violence,” Police Chief Fred Fletcher vowed after a particularly rough week in February. Mayor Andy Berke made reducing crime one of his priorities when he took office in 2013 and has spent or pledged more than $2 million to special anti-crime initiatives, with few measurable declines.
Mothers and grandmothers in some neighborhoods keep their kids inside, away from windows. Bullets don’t have eyes, they say. Men are afraid to walk around the block after dark.
“You can’t even walk the street without wondering if you’re going to get shot,” Marie McCallie said after a shooting a few doors down from her house on East 27th Street in April.
Yet the majority of Chattanooga residents will never see crime tape on their street.
The city’s violence isn’t random. It’s concentrated among a small group of people — mostly young, black men. And most of the city’s shootings are connected either to each other or to criminal behavior.
Often, the people who are getting shot are also the people who are doing the shooting, police say.
“The nexus between a victim and a suspect is very short,” May said. “A vast majority of our shootings are retaliatory in nature. So yesterday’s victim is today’s suspect.”
Almost half of the people shot in Chattanooga during 2015 had criminal histories that included either a violent crime or a gun charge, according to a Times Free Press analysis.
Of 140 victims, 63 had been arrested on such charges. And 96 people — about 70 percent of victims — had nonviolent criminal histories like drug charges, theft or driving offenses. Only 29 victims had no criminal history in Hamilton County.
“People always approach me and say, ‘How safe is Chattanooga?’” said Lt. Glenn Scruggs, who heads the police department’s violent crime unit. “And I tell them, ‘Chattanooga is pretty safe — if you’re not out at 3 in the morning selling crack, or breaking into cars, or shooting at other people.’
“These guys put themselves in harm’s way. And it increases their chances of getting shot. It’s very rare that John Q. Citizen is going to get shot if he’s not in play.”
Scruggs estimated that 80 percent of Chattanooga’s shootings are tit-for-tat. You shot my friend, so I’ll shoot yours. You abused my sister, so I’m coming after you. Chattanooga is small; it’s easy to find someone.
Not a Small-City Problem
But this concentration of violence isn’t just a small-city problem. Researchers in Chicago tracked more than 10,000 people shot between 2006 and 2012 and found that 70 percent of the victims were part of networks that made up less than 6 percent of the city’s population.
The study looked at victims’ arrest records and created a network of co-offenders: people arrested at the same time, for the same incident. The analysis revealed that Chicago’s nonfatal gun violence is highly concentrated in small networks of people who engage in risky criminal behavior.
“The overlap between victim and suspect and the social connectivity is pretty astounding,” said Andrew Fox, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
In his own research in Kansas City, which is about twice as big as Chattanooga, Fox found the same concentrated networks that the researchers in Chicago found. Victims of homicide in Kansas City have arrest records five times longer than the suspects, he said, and the city’s violent crime is especially focused among gang members.
“The networks we’re looking at have higher homicide rates than soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said. “So it’s more dangerous for black male in Kansas City than for a soldier in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
The Chicago researchers found that gang members are three times more likely to be shot than non-gang members in the same network.
They also discovered the risk of being shot increases significantly if a person knows someone else who has been shot.
“Every handshake closer to a victim of a shooting increases your likelihood of being a victim by 25 percent,” Fox said.
In Chattanooga, gang members make up less than 1 percent of the city’s population but are involved in 50 percent of the city’s homicides and 58 percent of the city’s non-fatal shootings.
That means half of homicides aren’t gang-related. And not all victims are involved in criminal behavior — some are just caught in the crossfire, like Orlandus Metcalf, a 71-year-old retired city worker who was killed while asleep in bed. Or Monica McMillon, 37, who was shot to death during a drive-by in 2015.
But such cases are the exception, May said.
“There are very few what I would term ‘innocent victims,’” he said.
[A high school dropout], Joshen denies being in a gang, but his Facebook page tells a different story. There, he poses in pictures and videos throwing gang signs, holding guns, waving a wad of cash.
“I Was Born Cripk Ima Die Cripk,” he wrote one day.
But the shooting in October shook him up.
…Not long after that, he found out his girlfriend was pregnant, that they were going to have a boy. They decided to name the baby Demetrice Jr.
Joshen posted photos of handsome black boys in football uniforms on his Facebook page, bragged that his son would be like them.
“I Can’t Wait Til My Son Get Here He Be On My Mind 24\7,” he wrote.
Knowing he had a son on the way made him think twice about going out, Joshen said.
But two weeks after the shooting, he was in jail. [He was arrested following an incident in which shots were fired from a car. Police think Joshen was in one of those cars — a Crip deep in Blood territory, aiming for revenge.]
The next day, a police officer spotted a car that matched the description of the shooter’s car in East Lake Courts. It was empty, so the officer waited nearby.
Then, Joshen walked up to the car and got in the driver’s seat.
When the officer approached, Joshen got out, grabbed his waistband and ran.
He passed out two blocks away and was arrested. Under his body, police found a bag of marijuana and the key to the car — which had been stolen during a carjacking in Atlanta. A witness told police she saw Joshen ditch a gun, but investigators never found a weapon.
“They tried to hit me with the police car,” Joshen said. “I passed out because I had just got shot, and I wasn’t ready to be outside.”
He was charged with evading arrest, theft of property, possession of marijuana and trespassing — but wasn’t charged for his alleged role in the previous day’s bus stop shooting. No one was ever charged for that attack.
Joshen spent the next six weeks in the Hamilton County Jail. His charges are still winding through the court system.
The story is typical.
‘A Revolving Door’
“It’s really a revolving door,” said one gang member who asked not to be identified. “You kill my friend, so I’m going to kill your friend. You shot my house up, so I’m going to shoot your mama’s house up.”
Gang-related disputes are behind much of Chattanooga’s gun violence — half of all homicides and nearly 60 percent of all non-fatal shootings since 2013 involved gang members, according to police.
But the fights aren’t cut-and-dry, and they’re rarely driven by gang allegiance alone.
Joe was 13 years old the first time he tried to shoot someone.
He and another guy had been fighting on the school bus. The other guy insulted Joe’s mom, embarrassed him in front of the whole bus.
So Joe went home and got his mother’s gun.He went to the guy’s house, knocked on the door, and asked his mother if her son could come out and play.
He already had the gun out, in his hand.She saw it and bluffed.
“I’m a cop,” she told him. “You need to put the gun down.”
“And with my 13-year-old mind, I did just that,” Joe said. “I thought, ‘Oh God, she’s a cop! Put the gun down!’ It just shows you the mindset I had, how undeveloped my mind was.”
The woman then called the police — the real police — and Joe ended up in juvenile detention.
It was the beginning of a long criminal career for Joe, now 32, who said he rose through the ranks of Chattanooga’s Vice Lords until he was running the gang for the eastern half of Tennessee.
He asked to be identified only by “Joe,” a nickname Vice Lords use for each other. He said he’s taken a step back from running the gang for the past couple of years and now encourages at-risk youth to avoid the gang life.
…”Joining a gang isn’t like going off to college,” Joe said. “It’s not new. I was already doing this stuff anyway. I was already fighting. I was already stealing, I was already liking guns. All I did was learn some stuff that I can and can’t do, and put a code behind it.”
Guns are part of urban culture, he said, accessories just like a belt or a hat or a watch. And most shootings spring from personal disputes, he said.
“It can be something really minuscule and small,” he said. “It could be something so simple as we’re sleeping with the same girl and we’re in opposite gangs. Or I simply don’t like you — you don’t even have to be in an opposite gang. I just don’t like you. And that’s a reason.”
…But Joe never thought that far down the road when he was pulling the trigger as a teenager. He had no real sense of death, or of the consequences that would follow if he killed someone and got caught.
“Especially at 11, 13, you’re not thinking he’s going to die and he’s never coming back,” he said. “You don’t think about how his family will feel or the consequences of your actions.”
May and Scruggs often see that attitude.
“They’re kids, they’re invincible,” May said. “It’s no different on Signal Mountain, in Knoxville, in California — when you’re 16, you’re on top of the world; you know everything.”
Some gang members join because of necessity; others join because they like the sense of power, the adrenaline and the life, May said. Gang members use the term “opposition” to describe enemy gangs. It’s a phrase from the video game “Call of Duty.”
“That sums it up in a really bad way,” Scruggs said. “To these kids, this is like a big video game. A living, breathing ‘Grand Theft Auto.’”
Why They Shoot
…Joe cringes when he watches the broader community react to …high-profile incidents.
“This is what the community sees: ‘Oh my god, there was a shootout on Brainerd Road,’” he said. “But they don’t realize this s*** was three, four years coming. You’ve shot at my mama, I’ve shot at yours, and now we’re at a red light.
“I have a gun, a couple guys in the car have guns, so we have a shootout. I didn’t just see someone on Brainerd Road and decide to start shooting at them because they’ve got the wrong color. That’s not what this is.”
Violence is the way gangs keep order, Fox said. Gangs tend to spring up when everything else has gone wrong — schools have failed, jobs have failed, families have failed, infrastructure has failed.
“You have these groups of people who are functioning in neighborhoods that are extremely disadvantaged and disorganized, so violence becomes the way of organizing and controlling behavior,” Fox said.
The city’s Violence Reduction Initiative, championed by Berke and Fletcher, is designed to focus on the most at-risk gang members in the city — the small core of people who are shot and shoot back.
The strategy sets rules for those men and gives them a choice: stop shooting and receive social services, or else watch law enforcement come at you hard. You’ll face the full force of the law if you keep pulling the trigger, the men are told.
The goal is to reduce gang-related gun violence.
But it hasn’t worked.
There were 53 non-fatal gang-related shootings in 2013, 67 in 2014, 70 in 2015 and as of May 5, there had been
28 in 2016.
Gang-related homicides also remained steady, with 12 in 2013, 13 in 2014, 14 in 2015 and seven so far this year.
And that’s just the shootings where someone was injured or killed, not incidents where shots were fired but no one was hurt. Research suggests that number is much higher, and heavily underreported.
Kansas City began using the same strategy as Chattanooga in 2013, a year before Berke launched the initiative. In 2014, Kansas City’s homicide count dropped 23 percent, to 77 deaths — the lowest count in 42 years.
But since then, crime has crept back up, Fox said. He studied the focused deterrence methods used in Kansas City and found that the immediate, statistically significant impact the initiative had on homicides lessened over time.
“There is no research that shows a long-term reduction because of focused deterrence,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible, it’s just that we haven’t seen it yet.”
The Violence Reduction Strategy
David Kennedy, the national criminologist [from John Jay College of Criminal Justice] who created the approach behind both Chattanooga’s Violence Reduction Initiative and the program in Kansas City, argued that his strategy has shown long-lasting results. He pointed to the pace of youth homicides in Boston in the mid-1990s, where he first tested his approach.
Homicides of people under the age of 24 dropped significantly between 1996 and 2000 — during the years the city was using his strategy, then dubbed “Operation Ceasefire.” But when the city stopped using that strategy in 2001, youth homicides began to climb again.
However, Kennedy admitted that there are few long-term studies that examine the impact of his strategy and said he’s not aware of any such studies that span more than five years. He said that when the strategy does falter, it’s often because the city officials who are implementing the strategy lose focus or deviate from the plan.
“There is a long history, up until recently, of cities that for one reason or another allowed implementation to slip,” he said. “And as the approach has gotten more standing and more credibility and people take it more seriously, we believe that we are seeing that pattern reverse.
“Cities are not letting that happen anymore. But because so many did, there are lots of studies that say the first couple of years looked good, but then after that it falters.”
Whether or not Kennedy’s strategy is a long-term solution, the network of violence cannot be disrupted by law enforcement alone, Fox said.
“There is a system in place that is creating gang members,” he said. “Law enforcement can deal with the violence and gangs that are happening now, but there is this process that is producing more. So once they’re done dealing with these, more are created. So how do we interrupt that system?”
He thinks the answer needs to be broad. School districts should ensure all schools are quality schools, and intervene aggressively at the first sign of truancy. Cities should check where their tax abatements go, and how that impacts development in low-income neighborhoods. And researchers need to figure out the warning signs, the precursors to gang membership, so that the community can intervene earlier in the lives of at-risk youth.
“It’s not an easy solution,” Fox said.
At the height of the violence in April, Joshen was talking about getting out of the streets.
“You get old and you realize it’s only going to get you in trouble or in jail,” he said.
Shelly Bradbury, a reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, is a 2016 John Jay/Solutions Journalism Network Violence Reporting Fellow. This story was prepared as part of her fellowship project, and appeared this week in the Free Press. It has been condensed and edited for space. Photos unless otherwise noted are by Doug Strickland. To see the full version, along with tables, please click HERE. Shelly welcomes comments from readers.