It was Labor Day weekend and Lamar Hughes, along with about two dozen friends and family, hung out in the courtyard between two of the rectangular brick apartment buildings of the Edgehill public housing development near Edgehill Avenue and 14th Avenue South.
It was getting late — or early — and the multi-family gathering was about to wrap for the night, just after 1 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 5. Before that could happen, though, a gunman later described as a stocky black man with short hair walked up to the crowd and shot Hughes.
As the gunman fled, Hughes ran back toward a family member’s home in the 1200 block of 14th Avenue, making it only a short distance before falling to the ground. He died later at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. He was 17.
Police were quick to point out that Hughes had a criminal record. He was on a three-year probation sentence after his juvenile charges were transferred to criminal court, and he pleaded guilty to two counts of aggravated burglary and one count of
Hughes was also the latest juvenile to fall victim to or commit a violent crime in recent months. By the police department’s count, Nashville has seen five juveniles murdered so far this year, along with five juveniles arrested for homicide.
A few high-profile shooting deaths of teenagers, at least one in the daylight hours, coupled with other violent crimes committed by juveniles, has the leader of group of pastors working alongside police to intervene in youth and young adult violence worried that violence is increasing.
According to data from police Chief Steve Anderson’s office, five juvenile suspects were charged with homicide from Jan. 1 through Sept. 13. From that timeframe, the department’s numbers on juvenile suspects and charges, including both completed and attempted crimes, show that, aside from the five juvenile homicide suspects, another 10 juvenile suspects were charged with attempted homicide.
So far this year, police have charged 34 juveniles with 47 aggravated robbery charges, including attempts, and 84 juvenile suspects with 95 aggravated assaults and attempts.
Also, police charged 113 juvenile aggravated burglary suspects with 148 aggravated burglary charges.
“The one thing I’ve noticed is that the crimes are more severe now,” said the Rev. Michael Joyner of the Pastors’ Intervention Program, a collaboration between the clergy and Metro police where officers can request that an on-call pastor respond to a crime scene involving youths and young adults to intervene and counsel the families and others involved.
“These are youths doing crimes, but these are not youth crimes,” Joyner said. “We’re seeing murders and robberies, just stuff that kids shouldn’t be doing.”
Sgt. Gary Kemper of the Metro Nashville Police Department’s Gang Unit said that while there have been gang connections to some of the shootings and robberies involving juveniles, the recent murders of juveniles don’t appear to be gang-related.
“The crime of choice now for a young gang member is street robbery … which is mainly involving dope dealers and dope buyers” — stealing drugs or stealing drug money, he said.
When Hughes was gunned down, Kemper first suspected he’d have gang activity to blame for it, but “I went back and checked the gang file that night and we had nothing on him, no contact with him,” he said.
Metro’s Gang Unit relies on a 10-point system established by state law where an officer fills out a field interview form, assigning points to certain gang activity indicators. For instance, if a suspect admits he’s in a gang, that might be worth nine points, while gang tattoos might equal two points, or known contact with gang members might assign three points.
But short of field interviews or direct observation, there may be no way to determine gang involvement other than anecdotal information from those in the community.
No major increase nationally
So far in the investigation into Hughes’ murder, police said nothing suggests gang involvement, which can make it more difficult to understand why high school-age children are shooting
others and getting shot.
Gary Jensen, professor of sociology and religious studies at Vanderbilt University and editor of the journal Homicide Studies, said national gang violence and youth violence rates tend to follow similar trajectories. But there is not currently any hard evidence to suggest an increase in youth violence on a national level.
Generally, nationwide juvenile violence has had several peaks, with the latest running from the
mid-1980s to the mid-1990s before declining.
“There’s a little upturn in the most recent years, but we’re not sure whether that’s just a blip or we’re beginning another upward trend,” Jensen said.
He added that recently available national data from 2005-2007 reflects a slight increase in gang violence and youth violence, but that doesn’t necessarily indicate a trend.
But deciphering reported numbers is also tricky business because of the various ways agencies report crime statistics.
“There’s controversy right now about what the Davidson County and Nashville statistics really mean,” Jensen said.
Jensen is referring to questions about the police department’s methods of collecting and reporting crime statistics, raised publicly in the months following a police department release in February that boasted six straight years of decline in the overall crime rate.
More severe youth crimes
Mayor Karl Dean earlier this year called for an internal audit of Metro’s crime statistics. The results are expected this fall.
But for Joyner, it doesn’t take numbers and stats to see there’s a problem when it comes to crime and Nashville’s youth.
“I don’t have the statistics,” he said, “but from what I can see, I would say that there is an increase [in crime] involving youth. I know that there’s an increase in the more severe crimes. … When you got two 14-year-olds killed within, what, a month or two period ….”
In a well-publicized Salemtown shooting this summer, police charged a 14-year-old gunman with killing Vincent Lewis, also 14, in an apparent robbery attempt outside a Sixth Avenue North apartment building on the afternoon of July 8. Lewis apparently knew his accused murderer, whose mother turned him in to police after she learned he was the suspected shooter in a three-week-long police investigation into the murder.
On Aug. 11, a shots-fired call drew police to South Eighth Street in East Nashville, where they found 14-year-old Ronquez Bigsby shot and lying on the ground in the James Cayce public housing development. Bigsby later died at Vanderbilt. The police investigation at the time pointed to other teens responsible for the shooting.
A week and a half before Hughes’ murder, police charged a 16-year-old with criminal homicide in juvenile court for the May 15 shooting death of 22-year-old Kowan Choli Ahmad outside the Sultan Cafe on Nolensville Pike. Police said the suspect admitted to shooting into a crowd during an argument at the restaurant. One of those shots hit Ahmad in the neck. He died 10 days later.
Among the other incidents of youth
• On June 18, police arrested a 17-year-old for the armed robbery of a man outside a Murfreesboro Pike McDonald’s, recovering a stolen .40-caliber pistol from the suspect. That suspect was already wanted for attempted murder for shooting another 17-year-old on North Second Street two and a half weeks earlier.
• Police charged a 16-year-old and a 17-year-old with criminal homicide in the late February murder of Athel Hayes, 60, on South Sixth Street.
• On Jan. 26, police arrested a 17-year-old suspected of shooting another 17-year-old on Hinkle Drive.
• And last year, a grand jury indicted a 17-year-old in August for allegedly shooting and killing Terrence Lajuan Johnson, 34, in the J.C. Napier public housing development on Dec. 23. Earlier that day, the suspect allegedly robbed a man during a dice game. The day before that, police believe he shot another man in the legs while robbing him.
While the Pastors’ Intervention Program formed in June to reach into neighborhoods and reduce violence among young people, the group has only responded to a handful of incidents, Joyner said.
But the group is looking to broaden its response from crime scenes involving youths to reaching out to any young individuals police officers believe need counseling or intervention.
“There’s an age group from 16 to 24 that is very concerning to me. We’re just really praying that something happens in that area,” Joyner said.