After four officer-involved shootings within the past month, Tallahassee Police met with the community in the Griffin Heights neighborhood Thursday night. Attendees talked about trying to overcome mutual mistrust between law enforcement and the people. And they discussed potential solutions to the city’s sky-high crime rate.
Several officers are on administrative leave after recent shooting incidents have killed or injured five suspects police were pursuing. The recent rash of violence was fresh in the minds of many attending the meeting at New Birth Tabernacle church, especially those closest to the victims.
One woman cried, “They can’t be shooting our children like that…they could have done anything but shoot my son! That’s my son! And I brought him into the world.”
The woman says her son is 24-year-old Jacoby Hart, who was shot in a confrontation with police outside Club Pierre Sunday morning. The incident is scheduled to go before a grand jury next week to determine if officers responded with the correct force.
Police Chief Michael DeLeo told the crowd he’s trying to find a better way forward for the community he joined just five months ago. He points out Tallahassee’s violent crime rate has long surpassed those of Tampa, Orlando and Jacksonville—with nine shootings just in the past week.
“We need to remember—and I understand that people want to talk about the last few weeks—but the fact is is that gun violence has been on the rise in this entire community for years,” he says.
DeLeo repeatedly asked people to cooperate with police during investigations and report what they see. But several speakers echoed distrust after they say police have disrespected or even beaten people in their neighborhoods.
One woman says she watched a man get kneed in the back by an officer after he was detained in handcuffs. DeLeo cut in to hand her his business card, saying, “Then what you need to do is call me so I can fix it.”
At first the woman waved it away, saying, “I have those cards. I don’t get nobody. I get voicemails.”
DeLeo answered, “That’s my cell phone number!”
“OK, I need it,” she said.
Police and local officials mentioned several changes they thought could help reduce violence. For one, DeLeo says he plans to end the practice of putting the least experienced officers on the overnight shifts. He’s also submitting the department’s policies to an external review.
And the forum’s host, the Rev. Rudy Ferguson, urged people to look within.
“Did we come here to make our gripes, to make our statements, to walk out of here and say, ‘It’s out of my hands,’ or we going to work together as a community, as a family, to make sure that these things come about?” he says.
DeLeo agrees police will not solve the violent crime problem alone. He points to the success New Orleans has had in lowering its crime rate by using community organizations to train, educate and mentor young people in an effort to break the cycle.
As one speaker summed it up: “There’s a lot of dirty work left to be done.”