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GPD tells City Commission how they plan to address gun violence

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

Gainesville Police Chief Tony Jones led off today’s Gainesville City Commission meeting on gun violence by summarizing Gainesville Police Department’s strategy: build trust, invest in prevention and intervention programs, use precision enforcement efforts (Jones emphasized that they would not be using “racial profiling” or harassment), and measure results. The theme for the whole presentation was “One Community.”

Assistant Chief Lonnie Scott Sr. went through a long list of programs that the Gainesville Police Department (GPD) has implemented to try to address gun violence. He said that the plan for every neighborhood involves sitting down with the people who live there and listening to see what they need; the plan for one neighborhood will not be like the plan for a different neighborhood. He said the whole community needs to be involved, including businesses, churches, schools, and the university. He added, “If we don’t listen to you, you’re not going to have much trust in what we do.” 

Investment in youth and young adults

John Alexander told the commission about how GPD’s Operations and Administrative staff, Violence Interrupters (also known as Nspire Interrupters), and School Resource Officers refer youth and young adults to various programs. “Some parents have no idea that their children are involved in gang activity… some parents are naive” that some types of clothing are associated with gang membership, for example. He mentioned a social media campaign to ask parents where their children are at 11 p.m., for example. 

Nspire Interrupters keep case management files regarding the recent shooting activity between youth, and part of their role is to use that information to attempt to minimize retaliation. 

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Alexander said that six additional Nspire Interrupters will be hired and trained through the Project Safe Neighborhood Grant and the state agreement between the Florida Department of Corrections and the City of Gainesville.

Crime data

Chief Inspector Jaime Kurnick spoke about the crime analysis unit: “A very small portion of our population is responsible for the violent crime in the city of Gainesville.” In their weekly meetings, they look at the number of shots fired in the past seven days, number of weapons seized, number of firearms, quantity of narcotics seized, and number of neighbor contacts with and without arrest. 

Kurnick discussed the change in various metrics between August and September of this year. For example, 23 firearms were stolen in September vs. 8 in August. 118 firearms have been stolen in 2021, 66 of which were stolen from vehicles. So far in 2021, 261 firearms have been seized, there have been 101 verified incidents of shots fired, 45 people have been shot or injured by gunfire, and 5 people have been murdered.

The Uniform Crime Report (UCR) data shows that violent crimes except homicide increased from 2020 to 2021 (but both years were above the 3-year average for homicide) while property crimes decreased.

Kurnick also showed an assortment of firearms that were seized in one incident on October 16, 2021. She said this is “commonplace.”

Kurnick said that violent crime across the county was up 5.6% from 2019 to 2020. She presented a number of maps showing where various incidents have happened in Gainesville this year. There are only four locations because there were two homicides at 912 E. University Avenue.

The next maps show incidents in August and September of 2021.

Gun Buy Back

Assistant Chief Scott talked about the Gun Buy Back Program; the next one is October 30. Gift cards will be provided to those who turn in guns, and GPD will minimize the information collected and promise “total immunity.” GPD is making a special appeal to parents to check their homes for weapons and turn them in: “If they discover a gun that they don’t own, they can turn it in to one of two churches on a selected day and time for a gift card. The parent will have total immunity during this time.” GPD will also provide gun safes at the event so people can lock up their guns. 

In response to a question from Commissioner Harvey Ward, Scott said the guns they collect are destroyed. Commissioner David Arreola mentioned a memorial in Minneapolis that casts confiscated guns into concrete to make them inoperable. Scott said they’re collecting information on an art piece made from confiscated weapons, but they haven’t committed to that yet.

Social media messaging

Alexander said GPD is trying to identify funds to develop a public safety education program to remind people to lock their vehicles. A social media campaign reminding residents to lock their vehicles every night at 9 p.m. ran seven days a week from December 5, 2019, to April 30, 2020. GPD plans on starting that up again. 

Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos said,  “A lot of this is irresponsible behavior” by gun owners who leave guns in unlocked vehicles. Jones said there is no statute making that illegal because people would be reluctant to report thefts if they could be penalized for not securing the firearm. 

Saco said the 9 p.m. reminder was “one of my favorite programs you’ve ever done,” and the one night she didn’t see the message, her car was broken into. Alexander said he hoped to get it launched soon.

One Community Neighbor Response Council

GPD will also soon create the One Community Neighbor Response Council by advertising for neighbors and community leadership participation on the council. They hope to hold the first meeting in the next few weeks. 

Within that council, a Violent Crime Workgroup will be formed. The mission is to curb violence; reduce the growing number of homicides and shootings in the city; and develop specific, community-wide steps that citizens and leaders can take to make their communities safer.

The workgroup hopes to do that by connecting communities and GPD to develop more effective community policing methods, build positive relationships between police officers and citizens, educate citizens on their rights and the role and responsibility of law enforcement officers, mobilize the community to create an environment friendly to crime reporting, advocate for legislative and policy changes to promote a safer community for all residents, and create support for parents. 

Neighborhood Support Unit

Assistant Chief Terry Pearce introduced the Neighborhood Support Unit, with the goal of “leaving people better than we find them.” It will be a group of specialists that have the resources to help Patrol work on these initiatives. Their mission is to connect non-governmental agencies with the people who need their services. The unit is “in its infancy” and will be staffed by taking one or two officers from several other units.

Jones said that GPD looks at risk factors for violence, including individual characteristics that make individuals more likely to engage in violent activity; interpersonal characteristics like social rejection, low commitment to school, and gang involvement; and family characteristics, including low parental involvement, parental substance abuse, and lack of supervision. 

Jones said that Patrol Operations, the Neighborhood Support Unit, and Investigations will work together, not in individual silos, bringing the presentation back to the “One Community” theme.

Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker said she has lived in District 1 all her life, and now she sees “more red and blue lights coming down 8th Avenue than I’d like to see.” She said she spoke to some young people at Duval in a summer program, and she wrote down their suggestions: “First, they’re suggesting that in gun violence, alcohol plays a role… They want to get guns off the streets. They want trackers on guns if they’re stolen. No automatic guns to civilians. They want stricter gun laws. They want to ban alcohol from people with records. No guns if you have mental health issues. Stop selling weed by the corner store. There is a reason that I’m reading this list. It is because this is what our young people are telling us. And I believe it’s incredibly important for us to listen, and heed what they’re saying.”

She said that the young people also told her, “We need things to do, places to go… martial arts, chess club, rugby, gymnastics, fitness, theater, and the list goes on and on. Part of me was heartbroken to hear the list because it’s so simple… I have vowed that, as my personal mission… that it’s time to listen to them, and so part of my response is a Town Hall discussion involving… the youth of this city. I believe the adults have talked enough…

“I will be presenting a resolution… for us to have a sustained response to this issue… I’ve begun having conversations with the Superintendent of Alachua County Public Schools Carlee Simon to see… what a partnership would look like between us and Alachua County Public Schools…” She said Duval Elementary School is in her district, and it’s “an incredible space that should be repurposed… to become a cultural center and a community space where we can give the kids what they are asking for.” She said the arts can divert kids off the streets and give them a creative outlet. She said the County and Alachua County Sheriff’s Office need to be involved, too. 

Duncan-Walker said she’s also been talking to the president of Santa Fe College to provide job training at Duval. “Gun violence is a major issue that we have to get our hands around. It’s going to take us all because I refuse to allow it to continue to kill us all.”

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