Jacksonville FL, November 11, 2018 – This has all happened before, and until people get serious about addressing the root causes of crime, it will all happen again.
That’s the reaction of many people familiar with the city of Jacksonville’s efforts to combat violent crime. Per capita Jacksonville has long had the highest crime and murder rates in Florida.
“We know what the problem is,” said University of North Florida criminology professor Michael Hallett, who has studied the crime rate in Jacksonville extensively. “We know what needs to be done. There just hasn’t been the political will to do it.”
Hallett said the city puts all its resources into law enforcement, police and the city jail. The only way to reduce the crime rate, he argues, is by attacking the root causes of crime, getting to at risk children and adults before they commit a crime and steering them in another direction.
That takes money, and the city has never been willing to invest in programs and mental health counseling.
“Kids on the Southside have structure and things to do,” Hallett said. “That structure doesn’t exist in many places on the Northside.”
The Duval County Jail is the biggest mental health provider in Northeast Florida, which means people aren’t getting treated until they’ve already been locked up, he said.
Paralysis by analysis
After recent shootings, the city moved forward with creating a citizen led task force on crime, the Task Force on Safety and Crime Reduction. About 40 citizens of Jacksonville will serve on the task force, which will be chaired by Pastor Mark Griffin of Wayman Ministries.
But after six people were shot blocks from TIAA Field during a Jacksonville Jaguars game Councilman Garrett Dennis called a press conference and criticized the task force, saying it wouldn’t accomplish anything.
“I’m hoping with the call of action that we focus on prevention and intervention and not just policing because policing is not working,” Dennis said, according to WJCT.
Dennis, who did not return multiple calls left at his city council office for this story, said during his press conference that the task force wasn’t needed because the city has “tasked forced this thing to death.”
That comment drew criticism from many, even those who agreed with Dennis’ main point.
“It’s never a waste of time to sit down and talk,” said Hallett.
Hallett acknowledged there had been previous task forces and committees like the Jacksonville Journey and the JCCI Homicide Study. There is a risk of “paralysis by analysis.” But he also believes that any conversation that focuses on this issue is useful.
Councilman Tommy Hazouri said task forces can lead to major changes.
“When I was mayor (from 1987-1991) we had a task force on odors and now (odor from paper mill plants) it’s gone,” Hazouri said. “These task forces can work.”
Ben Frazier, a civil rights activist and founder and president of the Northside Coalition of Jacksonville, said the task force was a good idea.
“I don’t have the same gloom and doom that Councilman Dennis has,” Frazier said. “We’ve got to do something, and we’ve got to do something different.”
Frazier said he hoped the task force looks at new ideas beyond hiring more police officers. He wants it to find a way to reach a consensus when it comes to reducing crime, but acknowledged that trust is a factor between people of color and police.
“The city has made promises to the black community before and didn’t follow through,” Frazier said. “But even though there are lots of reasons for distrust, we have to sit down and talk.”
Frazier also said the solution goes beyond hiring more police officers.
“We have to connect the dots between crime, poverty, mental health, education and other things,” he said. “We need a Marshall Plan for economic development in minority communities.”
Frazier said his organization talks to people involved in criminal activity, and those people say they can’t find jobs, and want to be employed.
“Treat crime like a public health issue,” Frazier said. “It’s a disease, no different than TB or anything else.”
Frazier said the latest statistics he’s seen show that 47 percent of people living in zip code area 32209 live in poverty and 12 percent are unemployed.
“Dealing with this will cost money one way or another,” Frazier said. “We can spend it on helping people or we can spend it on locking people up.”
Ron Davis lost his son in a senseless act of violence when a white man shot into his son’s vehicle because he was angry that his son was playing loud music. Jordan Davis was killed, although his three friends in the car were not physically hurt.
Now a community activist who has sought to help young black men and ease racial tensions, Davis said minority youth need more opportunities.
“The less opportunities you have for people the more crime you have,” Davis said. “That’s just a fact. A task force will just tell you what you already know.”
Davis said he’d like to see the community come together with people of all races committing to improve the city. He’d also like to see something done to get guns off the street.
“You can get a gun anywhere,” he said. “And you can’t get a lot else in some places.”
If it was as easy to get an education as it is to get a gun, things would change, Davis said.
Davis said he tries to find common ground with people who don’t agree with him. He believes people like Sheriff Mike Williams are open to helping the community.
“I don’t agree with Mike Williams politically,” Davis said. “But we’ve had lunch, I have his cell phone, and I believe he’s a good man.”
He hopes city leaders increase their presence in minority communities, not just with “walk through” events but by just sitting down and talking to people.
Tia Kitt with the Eastside Community Coalition said she understands what Dennis is saying.
“He’s in the middle of City Hall and he’s seen these committees come and go,” Kitt said. “I think it was a needed and healthy statement.”
Kitt said she intends to judge the new task force by its effectiveness. If it can do some good, she’ll be happy it was created.
But she hopes the task force goes to places where help is really needed, and Kitt singles out the Grand Park Education Center as a place the task force should look at.
“Honestly those teachers at Grand Park should be on the task force,” Kitt said. “I know there will be school board representation, but they’re often removed from what’s going on day-to-day.”
The task force needs to look at whether families that need help are getting it. It also needs to determine whether the funds exist to help at risk children and families, Kitt said.
Lawanda Ravoira, president and CEO of the Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center, said resources that exist in other cities aren’t available in Jacksonville.
“It is just the absolute lack of community-based services, especially when it comes to treating mental health,” Ravoira said.
So many people in the city have unaddressed mental health issue or unaddressed trauma or other health issues that aren’t dealt with.
“What’s going on seems like a band aid,” Ravoira said. “Until we address the real issues, we’re never going to solve this problem.”
In South Florida and other places there’s a specific taxing district for community services, but Jacksonville doesn’t have anything like that. Meanwhile, in Jacksonville programs that work end up being defunded. And programs like Big Brothers Big Sisters are great, but they don’t get to the kids that are most in need of help, Ravoira said.
“We aren’t willing to pay for intervention but we’re willing to pay $50,000 a year to lock someone up,” she said.
Ravoira sees people every day who never really had a chance to avoid the criminal justice system because there was no support system in place that would allow society to intervene to help them.
She also hopes the Jacksonville community takes more advantage of experts. Ravoira remembers a time when the City Council held a meeting to discuss the issue of human trafficking, and didn’t invite anyone from her organization to come even though the Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center is a recognized expert and has been involved in the issue statewide.