Violent Crime Down, But Shootings Skyrocket Amid Ongoing Efforts To Cure Tallahassee's Violence

Aug 14, 2019

Police are reporting 45 shootings in Tallahassee this year putting the city on track to outpace last year’s 50 shootings. While some point to poverty as a driver, residents say it’s a deeper issue.

On the side of South Adams Street, in an empty lot sits Breadwinners Barbeque. Cars rush by  the black metal food truck with the blue door and coordinating awning while meat sizzles in a smoker nearby. Tolan Barrington, known as the “$5 barbeque man,” serves his specialty in the July heat. His business is not even a block away from the barber shop Clippers, where a man was shot to death and his child held at gunpoint earlier this summer.   

"The sight of violence to people is nothing now."

Tolan Barrington, 39, stands by his food truck that's only a block away from the barbershop Clippers where a shooting happened earlier this summer.

"The sight of violence means nothing now, you know?" Barrington says while standing outside his truck. "The movies that come out now is so gory, the kids see this stuff and it’s hard to distinguish reality from this fiction based stuff in the movies."

Even though blaming video games and violent movies for desensitization is a popular theory, research shows little evidence for the correlation. In 2017, the American Psychological Association stated there’s “scant evidence” for the correlation between video games and violent crimes.

Still, it's a view widely held. At the nearby brunch staple Olean’s, a middle-aged woman with grey hair, glasses, and a soft voice, steps from behind the serving counter to add her input though she didn't want to be recorded. She says the shootings indicate a lack of faith and morals, and believes men in their twenties are poisoning the minds of their younger siblings. 

"They mis-define respect," she says, "believing respect is showing someone 'who’s boss,' and being 'boss' is worth more than a life."

Such sentiments don't come as a surprise to Leon County Sheriff Walt McNeil. He notes most men who are arrested are between the ages of 16 and 29. More than half of this year’s shootings are unsolved, but of those arrested, more than 80% are black males in that age range.

Portrait of Leon County Sheriff Walt McNeil
Credit Florida Sheriffs Association

McNeil says  most of the men committing crimes come from poor, distressed communities and single parent homes. They are living a life of institutionalized poverty which breeds anger , and the cycle of poverty is often difficult to break.

“We have to socialize, if that’s the right term, the males in our community to one respect each other, respect life, to understand that being a man isn’t what the old western movies used to project as a man," he said.

SHOOTINGS HIT CLOSE TO HOME

It’s a hot day at Cascades Park and children are playing in the water fountain to cool off from the 90-degree heat. On the other side of the park at the Power Plant Cafe's covered outdoor patio, two Godby students sit in the shade looking at the waterfall.

“Most of the time the shootings that we see, it really don’t have nothing to do with being poor, nothing like that, is people getting caught up in the moment,” said 16-year-old Yalana Wesley, a junior at Godby.

The first time a shooting hit close to home for her and friend Derrecia Williams was four years ago. The girls were at a  birthday party for Williams' cousin.

“I was just talking to him about his shoes," said Williams. "That my Auntie had on and they had on the same shoes or whatever, we was laughing and joking. He walked off and then minutes later, someone came saying 'Tae Tae got shot, Tae Tae got shot'."

D’Juante Tucker, nicknamed Tae Tae, was killed in 2015 near Dewey and Preston street. To this day neither of the girls know why he was killed. He died after being struck in a drive-by shooting.

"It's nothing that the police or detectives or anybody that can do something about it because people are going to do what they want to do regardless of the fact of anything."

While Sheriff McNeil believes the such deaths can be stopped with a change of attitude, Williams views the situation as hopeless. "It's nothing that the police or detectives or anybody that can do something about it because people are going to do what they want to do regardless of the fact of anything." 

Dereecia Williams and her friend Yalana Wesley walk around Cascades Park.
Credit Grace Crapps

ANGER BREEDS UNREST, VIOLENCE

Meanwhile about a mile away in a busy Starbucks, Bobbie and Beverly Mount discuss the shootings they’ve dealt with professionally and personally. They used to be social workers in the Southside community but recently put a pause on that career. Beverly Mount believes that some just snap in the heat of the moment. 

"I really do think anger has a lot to do with it," says Beverly Mount. She and her sister have observed Tallahassee officials cycle back-and-forth between prevention and intervention programs in their efforts to address violence, with varying degrees of success. 

Prevention programs are geared toward younger kids, and follow them from ages three till the end of high school. While intervention programs are geared towards teens who have already committed a crime and been in the juvenile system.  By then, the women say, it's often too late, and they say local officials haven't given prevention programs enough time to work.   

Over the years Florida has turned away from prevention programs and started pouring money into intervention, which Bobbie Mount believes is a mistake.

“These kids have been institutionalized. That’s going to require more than you and I going to their home once or twice a week [to] sit down and talk about anger management,” she says.

“They’ve seen a whole lot, they got a whole lot of anger management stuff when they were locked up, [and] if they’re coming back to the same place that they left, okay, what problem are they solving?”

Beverly Mount says no matter how much help a child gets, nothing is accomplished  if they still have to return to “an environment that’s poisonous and toxic.” 

A PRICEY PROBLEM

Amid Tallahassee’s tide of gun violence, the Leon County Sheriff’s office recently relaunched it’s call for the community to come together to help reduce violence. It asked for community members to lock their cars and report things that look suspicious. The ALLinLeon initiative also started Worship with Me, a program to connect at-risk youth with religious organizations. But since the relaunch in May, there have been 18 shootings, six of them fatal.

One area seems to be doing something right. The California Bay Area city of Oakland. According to Giffords Law Center, a firm that is dedicated to researching gun violence, since 2012, Oakland has reduced its fatal shootings by nearly half and it’s nonfatal shootings decreased by more than 50%. The strategy that is credited for the reduction is Oakland Ceasefire. A part of it is Oakland Unite, a division in the Human Services Department that treats violence as a public health issue and connects residents with a variety of resources from economic and educational training to life coaching.

Oakland’s public health approach is part of a national program called Cure Violence. A program name, that the city of Tallahassee has heard before.

In 2015, after an uptick in violent crime the Community Leadership Council on Gun Violence was formed. Gloria Pugh was on that panel and recommended Cure Violence as a solution.  “It would give an opportunity for the nonprofits to have somewhere to be on a regular basis to provide their services in their neighborhood,” Pugh said of the program. “Cure Violence would employ individuals from that neighborhood that also had issues with violence and were incarcerated and have changed their ways, and these individuals are what they call interrupters and these individuals are seen as credible because they 

Credit www.myfloridahouse.gov

walk the walk.” At the time, to form one Cure Violence center in Tallahassee would have cost between four to five hundred thousand dollars. “When you think about all the resources necessary to treat, to come, investigations, the treatment, everything associated with that one shooting, you’re looking at close to two million dollars,” Pugh said comparing the costs.

Ultimately, the city of Tallahassee went with a community-policing model, where Tallahassee decided to hire more police officers. “Where police officers are getting more involved in the community, with our young people, with neighborhood associations, and having those individuals get to know them and get to know the community so that relationships are built,” said City Commissioner Curtis Richardson.

“We’ve seen a reduction, in crime, particularly violent crime in our community over the last several years, based on what we’ve done.”

Richardson’s right, according to Florida Department’s Law Enforcement Community Uniform Crime Report, overall violent crime is down by 6.6% from 2017 to 2018, but that includes murder, sexual offenses, robbery and aggravated assault. At this time last year, only 29 shootings had occurred in Tallahassee compared to today’s 45.