Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond speaks to Times Free Press editorial board members.
Public interest in crime, safety and security has been more intense over the last three years in part because the nation has its first black president, Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond said.
"We may dance around it but a lot of people are fearful of 'Ah, this is gonna ruin our country,'" Hammond said this week during a meeting with Chattanooga Times Free Press editors and reporters.
"Fear and uncertainty. Part of it is [the] first black president. I mean, we all see that."
That sentiment doesn't surprise experts at the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that tracks and studies anti-government groups.
"We've seen an incredible rise in the number of anti-government groups in the last four years and sentiment that the country has gone to hell in a handbasket," said Heidi Beirich, director of the center's Intelligence Project.
"It's not incredibly surprising to me that people have gone to a sheriff [and] expressed all these fears," she said.
Each year that President Barack Obama has been in office, the number of anti-government groups has risen. In 2008, the law center counted 149 established groups.
The next year, the figure jumped to 512, then to 824 in 2010 and to 1,274 in 2011. This year, Beirich said, the number is at least 1,300.
But there's more at work.
"The country is changing demographically. Whites will become the minorities in the 2040s, according to the U.S. Census. That's causing anxiety amongst some folks. It's not just a race issue. It's a culture issue, too," Beirich said.
Coupled with a struggling economy, these shifts have "contributed to this fear on the right," she said.
Hammond said he gives about 15 Neighborhood Watch talks every couple of months and people's concerns about safety and security have exploded in the last few years.
"I also get the people who want me to arm them tooth and nail out there," he said.
On schools, he added, "my emails and my phone calls are ringing off [the hook] from people who just want to get their bazooka and go down and protect the school.
"So people are just more nervous, more upset about the unknown. We've got to be reasonable about how we approach that as police."
James Mapp, president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said that, sadly, some people seem to adopt the line of thinking Hammond describes.
"I think people buy what's put before them. I think there's an element that profits because of this," he said. "It's a shame. The office of president should be one that's respected. Too many people in our country fail to respect the office of president regardless of who's in that office."
The sheriff said he respects the office of president whether or not he likes the person who sits in the White House.
Hammond said public fear about the president's race stem from "an Old South thing [that] in the South they just think that everything's gonna happen. It's [the] same thing you had after the Civil War with the carpetbaggers."
He called the fear "unnatural."
Mark West, who heads up the local tea party, said concerns about safety and security also have grown with the national debate over expanding gun control. Tea party members share concerns about fiscal responsibility at the federal level as well as leaders adhering to the U.S. Constitution, according to the group's website.
However, he said the president's race has never entered in those conversations.
"It's really a factor of the policies of an individual -- not the color of his skin," he said.
West said he doesn't doubt that the sheriff has had more people calling him with concerns.
"He represents the people. It would only stand to reason they would be sharing their fears with their sheriff who is there to protect them," he said.