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Chief Lonnie Scott on roving late-night parties: “We’re getting to the point where we may not be able to control all the crowds”

Mayor Lauren Poe speaks at the May 5 Gainesville City Commission meeting

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

At the May 5 Gainesville City Commission meeting, Gainesville Interim Police Chief Lonnie Scott Sr. gave a quarterly update on crime in Gainesville. He compared year-to-date statistics through April 26 for 2019 through 2022, and violent crimes are up overall 1% from 2021 to this year. The index of all crimes is down 10% from the 3-year average. All the violent crimes except aggravated assault were higher in 2022, but aggravated assault is down 12% from 2021. Property crimes are all down significantly from 2021. Car burglaries are down significantly, but motorcycle thefts have doubled over 2021, and retail thefts are up significantly.

Scott also presented data on gun crimes:

Scott said Gainesville Police Department (GPD) has 35 vacancies in sworn officer positions, along with 20 vacancies in civilian positions. He said they have 11-12 sworn officers enrolled in their Mini-Academy, but those officers won’t be out on the road until almost the end of the year. 

On top of the 35 vacancies, another 11 officers are in limited-duty status, meaning they can’t work because of injury or illness. So 46 sworn officers out of 283 authorized sworn officers are currently unavailable.

“We’re at the point now, with the staffing that we have and the challenges that we face, that I’m concerned for the safety of our officers, as well as the neighbors.” – GPD Interim Chief Lonnie Scott, Sr.

Scott then said that he needed to emphasize to the commission that “we’re at the point now, with the staffing that we have and the challenges that we face, that I’m concerned for the safety of our officers, as well as the neighbors.” He said the officers are also coming to him, concerned for their own safety. 

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As an example, Scott told the commission that on Easter weekend, they had 50 additional officers working. On Sunday night, the evening shift had to be held over until almost 4:00 a.m., dealing with the crowds. “The 50 additional officers weren’t enough.”

Scott said the highest demand is on Thursday-Sunday nights. He said they didn’t used to have a lot of activity on Sunday nights, but “that doesn’t happen now. Now people are out there until 5:00 in the morning. Are they going to school or going to work? Obviously not.” He said the officers that work on the weekends “get no rest at all,” and resources are pulled from other areas of the city.

“So that puts us in a position where someone may be experiencing a serious need for a police officer, and we can’t respond in a timely manner that we would like. And that has happened.” – Chief Scott

Scott said he didn’t want to put specific numbers out there, “but if I send 3/4 of my resources to deal with issues downtown, that leaves 1/4 of my resources for the remainder of the city… So that puts us in a position where someone may be experiencing a serious need for a police officer, and we can’t respond in a timely manner that we would like. And that has happened.”

He said that concentrating GPD’s resources downtown “increases the risk of physical encounters between officers and neighbors.” He pointed out that national studies show that nearly half of homicides involve alcohol. 

Scott continued: “Gainesville, quite frankly, has become the regional hub for folks in and around this area to come drink and hang out. They come here from as far south as Miami… We asked them why are you coming here from Palatka… and they said we can’t do this in Palatka. And that seemed to be a resounding theme to a lot of the folks coming here, that they can’t do what they do here in Palatka… They can’t drink openly in the parking lots like they do here. And that’s become a serious issue with us… In all candor, there’s only so much we can do with the limited personnel that we have.”

Scott said he has had to mandate that officers work events, which he doesn’t like to do because “your plans that you have for the weekend are gone.”

Scott presented a 5-minute video showing recent interactions between downtown/midtown crowds and GPD officers. We have requested a copy of the video, but in the meantime, you can view it with Chief Scott’s narration at time stamp 2:19:18 here: https://gainesville.granicus.com/player/clip/4576

“I’ve never seen it at this level… A large part of that is we’re not just dealing with Gainesville folks; we’re dealing with people from all over the area.” – Chief Scott

One part of the video shows an officer restraining a suspect who had a gun, but someone in the crowd picks up the gun, and the officer doesn’t know where it is while he’s detaining the suspect. “It’s bedlam… the primary reason we show you that is just to show you that when I tell you that we’re getting to the point where we may not be able to control all the crowds, this is the evidence of it… I’ve never seen it at this level… A large part of that is we’re not just dealing with Gainesville folks; we’re dealing with people from all over the area.”

Scott said the department needs staffing, an update to the City’s noise ordinance, a protocol for noise enforcement, and a protocol for progressive penalties for businesses that generate noise complaints.

“By the time we get to them, there are hundreds of people there. I cannot send four or five officers into hundreds to people to try stop them from drinking and stop them from playing loud music. We have to get there at the beginning, but we have nothing legally that we can do to people who are sitting in the parking lot, drinking… In the past, we could do something with that.” – Chief Scott

Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos commented that Easter Sunday (shown in the video) “was not the normal weekends we have,” but Scott responded, “The issue is every Sunday, every Sunday, we’re dealing with these problems. Crowds that are similar in size… A lot of these people bring weapons with them, and the weapons are in the car. So if they’re sitting out in cars drinking—I just gave you the stats on how many people have been drinking before they commit a homicide—they’re right there next to the gun, and that’s when we have some shootings. Also… we don’t have… a definitive location that they are going to be that we can get to. By the time we get to them, there are hundreds of people there. I cannot send four or five officers into hundreds to people to try stop them from drinking and stop them from playing loud music. We have to get there at the beginning, but we have nothing legally that we can do to people who are sitting in the parking lot, drinking… In the past, we could do something with that. We can’t. So the crowds get larger by the time they get unruly and unmanageable. We don’t have the resources to deal with it.”

Scott said the people in these neighborhoods are “fed up… When you talk to the neighbors, overwhelmingly, they’re tired of the noise. They’re tired of the rowdiness, they’re afraid.”

“What happens is that when the bars close, and/or they leave an event or they get to a certain point and the crowd is really big, they start moving from location to location… from the parking garage and/or City Lot #13, and they’ll go… down to either Wawa, and start heading west, and they might end up at Home Depot, you know, they get to the parking lots, and it’s hundreds of cars.” – Chief Scott

Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut asked where the incidents are happening. Scott responded, “They’re all over. What happens is that when the bars close, and/or they leave an event or they get to a certain point and the crowd is really big, they start moving from location to location… from the parking garage and/or City Lot #13, and they’ll go… down to either Wawa, and start heading west, and they might end up at Home Depot, you know, they get to the parking lots, and it’s hundreds of cars. And so we literally, my folks are chasing them around trying to make sure nobody gets out of hand. And you have probably 3/4 of our resources dealing with that crime.”

Scott added that the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office has put out a notice letting people know they will be arrested if they come to a parking lot to drink. “You can’t do this in Ocala. You do it in Ocala, it will be a really bad night for you. You can’t do it in Bradford County. Can’t do it in Levy County.”

“I do want to point out, again, that the big crowd in midtown was happening before the open container… I don’t want to do something just to do something.” – Commissioner Harvey Ward

Commissioner Harvey Ward said that the open container law is “not the problem. Because this was going on before we relaxed open container. It has gotten much worse… A lot of folks, it seems like, are coming to Gainesville for the moving party… I was out in front of repealing open container because I really, really believe that most people can be reasonable, can be trusted to walk over to their neighbor’s house with a drink, but not everybody can be… We know that the roving party is a roving party probably of drunk drivers… I don’t want… anybody to get hurt physically; I also don’t want businesses to get shut down… But I do want to point out, again, that the big crowd in midtown was happening before the open container… I don’t want to do something just to do something. But I do want to take action that is helpful, that saves lives.”

“Frankly [I] was blown away when I talked to somebody who came from Miami… You cannot do, as you articulated, in other places what you do here.” – Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker

Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker began by “acknowledging the challenging situation that the Gainesville Police Department and those tasked to keep us safe are facing” and recalled that Scott had told the commission last year that he didn’t have the staff to address safety issues that could result from repealing the open container ordinance. She continued, “But I want to be clear. It’s not just Easter Sunday. It is UF ball games. It is festivals… huge gatherings… It’s not lost on me that not only are the lives, the safety, and the wellbeing of our neighbors in jeopardy when we are understaffed, but the lives of the officers are also in jeopardy… Do we know that the crowds in Gainesville have increased as a result of our open container ordinance?… Frankly [I] was blown away when I talked to somebody who came from Miami… You cannot do, as you articulated, in other places what you do here.”

“The officers are burned out. They’re not signing up for the overtime. It’s to the point where if I have to order someone to work overtime, that’s not good for morale” – Chief Scott

Commissioner Reina Saco asked about staffing, and Scott replied, “The officers are burned out. They’re not signing up for the overtime. It’s to the point where if I have to order someone to work overtime, that’s not good for morale”  He said that as they move into summer, school resource officers and detectives might have to start working the road: “We’re already juggling… If it continues any more, we’re going to have to undo some units that we have.”

“Many of these young men and women are coming and hanging out at T.B. McPherson, at the garage, at the Home Depot parking lot, because they don’t have anything else to do, or they don’t feel like they have anywhere they can go where they’re welcome… What is the alternative that we’re offering?” – Mayor Lauren Poe

Mayor Lauren Poe said, “We’ve mainly heard about symptoms of a problem. And if we’re going to have sustained success in affecting public safety, we must address the root causes of these types of behaviors. So let’s ask ourselves: Why do people come from all over the place to hang out in a parking log, right?… So I will tell you, in high school, me and my friends would show up to the Gainesville High School parking lot on Friday night and hang out, and why did we do that? Because we didn’t have anything else to do… Many of these young men and women are coming and hanging out at T.B. McPherson, at the garage, at the Home Depot parking lot, because they don’t have anything else to do, or they don’t feel like they have anywhere they can go where they’re welcome… Why are there not large crowds of predominantly white college kids hanging out in parking garages or in city parks?… What is the alternative we are offering?… [We can take various steps], but it’s not going to address the root issue… What, as a community, can we do better, so people have an alternative to hanging out in an empty lot, blasting music, and bringing their guns?”

“What’s troubling to me is that we have folks who take advantage of our laws, come here, start trouble, and they go home. And we end up having people hurt and/or killed.” – Chief Scott

Scott responded that several people have brought up ideas like midnight basketball and a Cultural Arts Center, “but what’s troubling to me is that we have folks who take advantage of our laws, come here, start trouble, and they go home. And we end up having people hurt and/or killed.”

Poe responded, “We also need to be courageous enough to have conversations about rethinking policing… We have got to be courageous enough to try implementing force multipliers and other technological solutions, or alternative delivery solutions, that allow us to respond to citizens’ need but free up our officers to do actual, real police work.” Poe mentioned a program in the city of Paris where speeders and noisy vehicles are automatically cited “using technology, and you ain’t going to do it twice. It’s more than a car payment.”

Poe said he’d rather have police officers responding to domestic violence calls than working in schools: “I know all the reasons that they are supposed to be in the schools… But when we’re down, and when we’re consistently looking like we’re going to be down, what’s the highest, best use of that individual?”

Poe also said Gainesville is and always has been a regional hub: “We’re what’s happening. We’re all that’s happening… and so folks are going to come here.”

“What I don’t want to do is take small, incremental steps that… will distract us from doing the really hard work that it will take to create systemic change that ultimately makes sure that everyone who comes here… that they have something positive to do” – Mayor Poe

Poe concluded, “What I don’t want to do is take small, incremental steps that make it feel like we’re addressing the root causes of these situations because they will be temporary, they will be illusory, and they also will distract us from doing the really hard work that it will take to create systemic change that ultimately makes sure that everyone who comes here… that they have something positive to do… and that will continue to be my North Star as we have this discussion.”

“I just want to note, because it needs to be said, that it’s absolutely absurd that much of what we’re talking about is gun violence, but we are not allowed to do a single thing about guns.” – Commissioner Harvey Ward

Ward added, “I just want to note, because it needs to be said, that it’s absolutely absurd that much of what we’re talking about is gun violence, but we are not allowed to do a single thing about guns.”

“We are talking about what has made Gainesville so appealing that people, wherever they come from, for whatever reason, travel to whatever part of Gainesville, enjoy their drinks, and create havoc for the neighbors.” – Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker

Duncan-Walker said she was “concerned that this conversation seems to have taken on the tone of largely being about Easter Weekend… because that’s not at all what I gathered from Chief Scott’s presentation… This is not just Easter Weekend. It’s not just black people in downtown Gainesville. So addressing root causes, okay, but that’s not really what we’re talking about today. We are talking about what has made Gainesville so appealing that people, wherever they come from, for whatever reason, travel to whatever part of Gainesville, enjoy their drinks, and create havoc for the neighbors.”

Scott agreed that people of all ages and races “just act foolish.” He said he could find videos showing “more diverse groups doing things that are just stupid.”

Duncan-Walker said, “Right… at the core of this, in your observations, is alcohol. And so if alcohol is a part of the problem, then for me, we have to do our due diligence in addressing that. You talk about root causes of violence, but you just said to us that the root cause of the issues that you’re asking us to look at is alcohol.”

Saco said, “I don’t think the City provides any activities for people at 1:00 a.m., that is not a service that we provide. I don’t think we can offer at 1:00, 2:00, 3:00 in the morning because nobody has anything to do at 3:00 in the morning. You should be sleeping.” She moved that the commission accept the report.

“The issues are, there are no places for the black people to go party because we’ve lost all our clubs… They have nowhere to go, so they’re congregating outside because gentrification has steam-rolled through their communities” – Sharon Burney

During public comment, Sharon Burney said that when she was a student at UF in the early 90s, “We were over-policed and had to pay a ridiculous amount of money to have police at our parties to monitor the black students on campus… The video disgusted me. There were two different race points of those videos… There’s a lot of date rape crime that happens in Midtown. There’s a lot of fighting and partying in Midtown. There’s a lot of open drunkenness during the football games… The issues are, there are no places for the black people to go party because we’ve lost all our clubs… They have nowhere to go, so they’re congregating outside because gentrification has steam-rolled through their communities… We need to think about all of the policies that created this monster that you see now, and it’s race-based… The first thing you want to do is put policing on it, but the black people are the people who suffer the most from the extra policing.”

Armando Grandy-Gomes spoke about the “dog whistles and the racial overtones, not only in the presentation, but we’re talking about the staffing levels of GPD when… [previously, we] said we’re doing it because homeless people and black folks are being arrested… Now look who is being targeted, just like we told you. The racial overtones, some of you look at black people as disposable.”

“You are being taken advantage of by having that kind of relaxed rule. The open container law worked very well for us.” – Aaron Green

Aaron Green, a former mayor-commissioner of Gainesville and former owner of Fletcher’s, agreed with Scott “about this being a regional hub for entertainment. People coming from Marion County, Columbia County, Cross City, Chiefland. I ran into a couple of young men in the military from MacDill Air Force Base… We taught three or four generations of people to drink and how to act and when to stop… and this was just a new generation of people coming along that their approach was a little bit different… One of the things I think you ought to grab ahold of that the Chief told you about is this idea of Jacksonville putting on social media ‘You can’t drink in the parking lots over here in Duval County,’ and they know that they can here. You are being taken advantage of by having that kind of relaxed rule. The open container law worked very well for us.”

Layla Fakhouri, who owns a business in the southwest parking garage, says she sees the violence regularly. She asked for better lighting in the garage, along with working security cameras and limiting open containers in parking lots and parking garages. “It doesn’t necessarily make much sense to have alcohol right before you jump in your car.” She said the ability to have open containers has helped businesses get through COVID, “but we also do want to find a middle ground where we’re curbing the violence in some kind of way.”

Another business owner in the parking garage said it’s become difficult to get in and out of the garage late at night because of the crowds, and on one recent weekend, an ambulance could not get in to transport an injured security guard. He said, “The parking garage should not be a bar. You should not have open container in the parking garage… You’re my landlords. You should be looking out for me, as a business owner… It’s not uncommon in the last two months for me to come out and find shell casings all around my business… I’m waiting for the call that my windows are shot out… After the worst brawl… who do you think had to clean up that mess?… That’s just an illusion if you think that specific weekend was the issue.”

The motion to accept the report passed unanimously.

Due to the length of the discussion on Chief Scott’s report, we will cover the discussion about the open container ordinance in a separate article.

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