Midstate law enforcement agencies band together to fight rise in violent juvenile crime

BY KATE COIL
TML Communications Specialist

The murder of a musician in West Nashville, a Brentwood police officer hospitalized after being struck with a stolen vehicle, and the arrest of a 15-year-old for multiple carjackings: these are among the reasons law enforcement officials from across Middle Tennessee are coming together to target juvenile crime.
Police departments with the cities of Brentwood, Clarksville, Franklin, Hendersonville, La Vergne, Nolensville, Smyrna, and Metro Nashville have come together with sheriffs’ offices and agencies like the Tennessee Highway Patrol and Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to figure out what can be done about the wave of violent crimes related to juveniles that have been hitting the area in the past few years.
Franklin Police Chief Deborah Faulkner said the most troubling aspect is not just the increase in crime but the increase in violence.
“Law enforcement agencies have absolutely seen an increase in juvenile crime, not just in the Franklin or Williamson County area but all in the Middle Tennessee and Greater Metropolitan Nashville area,” Faulkner said. “There has especially been an increase in property crimes such as thefts from vehicles and of vehicles, not to mention carjackings and robberies.”
Many of these crimes in the mid-state have two things in common: cars and guns. Unfortunately, Faulkner said many Middle Tennessee residents are unknowingly aiding offenders, making it easier for them to commit more and more violence.
“People are still leaving guns in their cars,” Faulkner said. “Once these individuals have a stolen car, they don’t care what they do with it or what they do in it. They will then take these guns and use them in the commission of other crimes. We saw that in Nashville, and we have seen that in other places.”
Across the state, officers and police chiefs are reporting the same thing: unlocked cars being stolen and guns being taken from them. TBI Director David Rausch said this access to vehicles and firearms means that juvenile policing is rapidly becoming even more of a regional issue.
“The big challenge is these young people aren’t bound by the neighborhood anymore,” Rausch said. “They can steal a car. That then expands the area they can wander to commit more criminal mischief.”
The rise in crime prompted Metro Nashville to create a Juvenile Crime Task Force in February 2018 to deal with the increase in juveniles being arrested – and often rearrested. In the year since the task force was organized, a total of 222 minors were charged with 309 felonies and 430 misdemeanors.
Perhaps most alarming, the Metro Nashville Police Department Juvenile Crime Task Force recovered nearly 200 stolen vehicles and 224 guns in one year of operations alone.
Brentwood Police Chief Jeff Hughes said many of the offenders being arrested by Nashville’s task force are the same offenders showing up in cities throughout the region.
“They are going to the areas where they know they are going to have success in committing these acts,” Hughes said. “Sometimes in these outer lying communities, people are a little more lax when it comes to taking the precautions they need to.”
Many departments in the region have surveillance footage of juveniles walking down neighborhood streets, testing cars until they find one that is unlocked. If they can’t find any, they try the next street over.
Faulkner said many motorists don’t realize how easy and quickly someone can get into their vehicle, especially if they leave it running while they go into a store or their home.
Officials said they have also noticed the way these juvenile offenders respond to law enforcement and the criminal justice system is changing.
“These young people seem to lack fear,” Faulkner said. “They don’t seem to be concerned with the outcomes or consequences of their actions. For me, as a longtime law enforcement official, that is extremely concerning. Some people think this is just a few young people doing things here and there so we shouldn’t be concerned about it. I can tell you, particularly after the homicide in Nashville, those of us who are in the business of crime prevention and apprehending criminals are extremely concerned about possible links to gangs and other very serious criminal activity.”
Officers across the midstate are reporting increases in the number of pursuits – both via vehicle and on foot – they have conducted. Hughes said officers now have to make tough calls when it comes to whether or not to pursue suspects, especially since they can get in legal trouble and face liability for damage done during pursuits.
“When we have restrictive pursuit policies – as we should, because we certainly don’t want a pursuit to injure an officer or bystander – normally what we end up doing is terminating those pursuits shortly after they have been initiated if the risk of the pursuit outweighs the cost of the apprehension,” Hughes said.
Recidivism is also increasing among juveniles. Of those 222 juveniles the Metro Police Department Juvenile Crime Task Force charged in the past year, 45 percent were arrested more than once with 10 arrested five or more times in the same year. Some of the offenders re-arrested were as young as 12.
Smyrna Police Chief Kevin Arnold said he has also dealt with repeat offenders in his own community.
“About two years ago, we had a gun store in town that was burglarized by juveniles using a stolen vehicle to ram into the front of the store,” he said. “They then went in and stole a large amount of guns. Through the diligence of our detective division, we arrested everyone involved and recovered most of the guns. One of the kids was 15 years old and had already been arrested 31 times.”
As a result, Arnold and other law enforcement officials are wondering if the current system is really working.
“We have to ask at what point we say enough is enough,” Arnold said. “Obviously, if you have a juvenile who has been in the system more than 30 times, counseling and techniques of that nature aren’t working. We also have to make sure that the kids that can be reached are reached and are getting the proper help they need. There is a balancing act.”
Rausch said that others need to be held accountable for these actions as well.
“We want to hold not just these juveniles accountable but also their families. We need to push the message of responsibility,” he said. “We need to push that message to parents, especially.”
Rausch said he thinks some parents and guardians are afraid to seek the help of law enforcement or the court system, trying to protect their children in a way that does more harm in the long run.
“Parents also need to seek help from the courts and social services,” he said. “The right way to protect your kids is hold them accountable, not to cover up their activity. There are great resources through the juvenile system to help parents. The last thing we want to do is take a child away from the parent. We want to give you the resources to keep your family together.”
Bringing together police departments and law enforcement resources is just one way officials in Middle Tennessee are looking to combat the issue. Arnold said his department is already seeing the benefit of the regional task force.
“By us getting together, we are now getting all sorts of information coming in from every side,” he said. “One thing I think is great about the state of Tennessee is how law enforcement in this state works together. There are no territory disputes or dealing with egos. You can’t have effective law enforcement and not have law enforcement talking with one another.”
Rausch said he is glad to see regional departments working together. He said TBI is eager to continue to serve as an important resource to push out information, evaluate crime statistics, and analyze offenders and patterns for these departments.
“It’s critical that departments come together,” he said. “TBI was created as a resource to all the agencies in our state, primarily for small rural and city departments to be their resource. These departments coming together and looking at this as a regional challenge is exactly the right way to approach this. We understand that crime is different in different locations, but with everyone coming together and working together, it helps TBI.”
Overall, Hughes said it is going to take officials and citizens from all walks of life to effect change.
“You have to look at this from every angle,” he said. “This is a societal problem. It’s going to take law enforcement, legislators, teachers, and parents. It is going to take all of us to come together on this.”