MURFREESBORO, Tenn. (WKRN) — During the 10-year period between 2006 and 2016, Murfreesboro Police Department Lt. James Abbott said there were only about two or three homicides where the suspect was a juvenile.

By around 2017, things began to shift. Abbott said there has since been an average of one to two homicides involving juvenile suspects in Murfreesboro each year, with two reported in 2021 and one reported last year. In total, there were around 10 homicides reported those years.

“Since becoming a detective, since 2006, we’ve seen an increase (in juvenile crime) just in my experience working shootings, homicides,” Abbott said. “Back from 2006 to really about 2016 to 2017, the numbers were not quite as high as what we see now.”

Rising juvenile crime has been a trend across the state, and although crimes committed by juveniles only account for about 1% of violent crime in Murfreesboro, Abbott said it is as problem that has steadily grown worse, with many names popping up more than once.

Murfreesboro Police Department Lt. James Abbott. (WKRN photo)

New ‘social networks’ may be influencing crime

Just in the past few years, Abbott said there have been two separate homicides where investigators were able to use a juvenile’s “GPS tracker,” or ankle monitor, to track them to the area of the crime.

“It’s not like moms and dads need to be worried that their child will be out here committing a crime tomorrow,” he said. “It’s the same repeat offenders, a lot of them. When we do see a new offender it’s someone that has been brought in by the group or became a friend of theirs.”

With several law enforcement agencies and federal prosecutors cracking down on gang activity in past years, Abbott said investigators no longer see teens joining organized gangs like before. Rather, they are forming what he refers to as “social networks.”

“It used to be the juveniles that were a part of a gang were ‘hang-arounds.’ The older members carried out the most violent acts,” Abbott said. “And in some ways, your older gang members also kept younger gang members in check.”

Now, Abbott said it’s not uncommon to see groups of 15- to 16-year-old kids forming their own “gangs” and carrying out violent acts, partly driven by “stuff they see on social media.”

“Some of the very same kids we’re talking about dealing with, their parents are the ones in the federal prison,” Abbott said. “So, they were born into it, but the gang wasn’t there when they got old enough to be in it. So, it’s like ‘Hey let’s create our own little clique and do our thing’.”

Easy access to guns

Abbott estimates that almost 70% of drive-by shootings, or reckless endangerments, in Murfreesboro in recent years and months have been committed by juveniles. According to the MPD, there were a total of 14 reckless endangerments reported in 2021 and 13 in 2022.

“When we talk about these shootings and things, they’re not just suspects or offenders in these cases, they’re also the victims,” Abbott said. “Most people that co-offend are more likely to be, especially in these types of crimes involving firearms, victims of gun violence.”

Based on data from the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network, many of the guns involved in those crimes can be traced to auto burglaries and thefts, and Abbott said some firearms have been on the streets for up to a decade.

“It’s not uncommon for us to see firearms from Memphis, Jackson, Nashville, Chattanooga and other surrounding cities where these firearms were used (in crimes) possibly two, three, I think the furthest one I’ve seen back was 10 years,” he said.

Often, Abbott said the weapons are illegally sold or handed down between group members, and he added, it’s never been easier for teens to access guns. In recent years, investigators have tracked several cases where teens were using “shoe sales” as code for buying guns.

“They would say ‘I’ve got this shoe for sale’,” Abbott said. “That was the code for the gun, the shoes. There for a while anytime someone would say, ‘I’m going to buy a pair of shoes,’ it was like ‘I guess they’re going to buy a gun’.”

Murfreesboro Police Department Lt. James Abbott looks over files. (WKRN photo)

‘How do you change that thought process?’

Abbott said it can be “tough to try to figure out ‘How do you change that thought process?'” However, Murfreesboro investigators have an advantage in that they often recognize the juveniles who are committing crimes.

Investigators, along with officers in the MPD’s Community Oriented Policing (COPS) Unit, often go out and speak with community members during investigations, not only to gather evidence, but as a method of crime prevention.

“We’ve spoken with family members before,” Abbott said. “When we’re out there at these shooting scenes we’ll speak with the mothers and grandparents and say, ‘Hey look, this is why your house got shot up. This individual who we suspected, their house was shot up, and this has to stop’.”

Abbott said some family members “take it to heart” and do what they can to intervene. However, he said there are some situations where that parental figure is not present, and some children lack the support system needed to keep them from reoffending.

“Some of these cases, these children don’t have these support mechanisms when they get out of juvenile detention and go back home,” he said. “I think that’s why we see that uptick in repeat offenders in these juvenile crimes, whether it be burglaries, thefts or even more violent crimes.”

Criminal investigators are often interacting with teens “after the fact,” Abbott said. But there are ways police are aiming to provide that support and positive interactions with kids earlier on.

Murfreesboro School Resource Officers are often at the forefront of that in elementary schools. In certain situations, SROs may also refer kids to after-school programs or other community resources designed to help foster a positive environment.

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Abbott said parents also play a large role in reducing juvenile crime. Parents should stay aware of their children’s activity on social media and “know who your children are hanging out with,” because he said there are typically “two sets of victims” in a violent crime.

“When that happens, you don’t get your life back,” Abbott said. “There are two sets of victims when there’s a homicide. Number one, it’s the victim themselves and their family, and then it’s usually the suspect’s family. You’ve lost a child also in a case like that.”

News 2 looks at the community consequences of the growing number of kids committing crimes and new ideas about solutions with our special reports, Juvenile Crime.