In December 2015, fifteen-year-old Zaevion Dobson was shot and killed while shielding three friends from a spray of bullets. For many, Dobson’s death marked the moment they first learned there were gangs operating in Knoxville. But for others, Dobson’s shooting was part of a familiar and tragic pattern of gang violence in their community. More than four years after his death, WUOT News contributor Leslie Snow examines some of the challenges law enforcement face in tackling gang violence and looks at one community’s novel approach to fighting gang activity in their neighborhood.
Most people are surprised to learn there are gangs operating in Knoxville. But according to Tom Walker, a detective in the Knox County Sheriff’s Gang Intelligence Unit, the city is in a prime location.
“We are geographically located halfway between the United States from Florida, where the drugs come in, and the upper cities, New York, Chicago,” he says. “So it’s a natural drug running route.”
He says when national gangs moved into Knoxville in the late 1990’s, the area’s crime rates increased.
"The gangs and the violence that follows the gangs, with the drugs and everything else, is probably the biggest drive and motivator for our violent crime in Knoxville," Walker said.
There are more than 30 gangs operating in Knoxville and more than 1,600 identified gang members. Gangs operate in every Knox County high school and about half the middle schools, according to Knox County District Attorney Charme Allen.
“There is gang activity every single day,” Allen said. “We deal with it every single day. We prosecute it, we have trials. Unfortunately, we deal with families in this office, who have lost loved ones on a consistent basis to gang activity."
Gang members like to recruit young children because if they get arrested, they don’t face the same kind of legal trouble adults do. KCSO's Tom Walker says the youngest gang member he has encountered was eight years old.
James Quick, an investigator with the Knoxville Police Department’s Gang Intelligence Unit, says communities need to push back against violence in their neighborhoods.
“We had a problem forever where certain neighborhoods were just accepting it. You’ve got to educate yourself, you’ve got to not tolerate it, and you’ve got to report it,” he said.
The Change Center in East Knoxville is one community response to fighting gang violence. The inner-city roller rink, which opened in 2018, offers a safe alternative to gang life, job training, and something Executive Director Nicole Chandler believes is critical: a sense of pride.
“For so many young people in this community, positivity is not a light they see in the media about where they live, about the schools that they go to, about the neighborhoods they live in,” she said.
And while talk of the Change Center was already in the works at the time of Zaevion Dobson’s death, Reverend Daryl Arnold of East Knoxville’s Overcoming Believers Church says the shooting brought a sense of urgency to the cause.
“We had already come up with The Change Center concept then Zae died, a year later. Zaevion’s death fueled the community to be able to help us work it out.”
Those efforts have paid off. Nicole Chandler said Knoxville Police Department statistics show a decrease in crime-related activity in the 37915 ZIP code that has been correlated to the existence of the Change Center.
And for gang members looking to gain a foothold in the area, Detective Walker has a clear message: “If you’re a gang member, this is what you’ve got to look forward to in Knox County. We’re going to catch you, we’re going to prosecute you, and we’re going to go for the biggest case we can in order to get you off our streets.”