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ECSO, Other Agencies Focus on Youth Violent Crime

Jennie McKeon

Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan and County Commissioner Lumon May joined a number of local officials and residents Tuesday, to discuss ways to curb youth violence and beef up public safety.  

The face of violent crime in Escambia County, says the sheriff, is getting younger.

“Most of the individuals who have been involved with this criminal activity recently are age 15-19,” said Morgan. “So we have a new dynamic in the level of crime and criminal activity in the age groups, the uptick in that which becomes problematic. Why? Because it’s primarily on the juvenile justice side.”

Law enforcement is dealing with street-level activity which, in some cases, bounties on individuals are actually being taken out – in other words, contract killings. Morgan says they’re working with federal authorities and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, but they also need help from the community.

“I’ll use an example,” Morgan said. “Tonight, somebody’s going to be a victim of domestic violence. Who is that person, and where are they? And you don’t know, do you? And neither do I. We can’t place a deputy on every street corner; we can’t place a deputy in every home. And so therefore, without the community’s support, we will fail.”

What ECSO is dealing with these days is what Morgan calls a “level of inactivity” from the public, which he says is “most disturbing.”

“We have people in our community refusing to turn over videotapes of security systems that they have that would assist us in solving these crimes,” said the sheriff. “So, what you can do for the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office is go back to your homes and call your neighbors – and your friends – and tell them that this is about our community.”

These types of crimes, says State Attorney Bill Eddins, are not exclusive to Northwest Florida.

“Violent crime is being committed by younger and younger people; the violence is escalating, and one of the primary reasons is that America is awash in drugs,” said Eddins.

Eddins’ office has assigned investigators and special prosecutors to work closely with law enforcement when it comes to youth crime. He also praises the cooperation of the various agencies for their cooperation. Eddins adds that his office is placing more focus on juvenile crime, with some success.

“We have groups of young juveniles that are organized, and that routinely burglarize cars in order to obtain guns,” Eddins said. “We broke one of those rings, and we’re currently prosecuting 17 co-defendants – most of them between the ages of 15 and 19.”

From that one bust have come 168 pending cases. The charges include both vehicle and home burglaries.

The state attorney and community leaders have developed a program where non-violent juvenile offenders are issued a civil citation, rather than an arrest on criminal charges. Forty-eight percent of those committing minor crimes, says Eddins, have been cited. 

Credit Jennie McKeon / WUWF
Around two dozen people showed up to the press conference Tuesday morning to listen and share their own concerns.

“I believe that system has been remarkable in keeping juveniles out of more major crime,” said Eddins. “And the reason is simple – as a juvenile, when you’re put in with other juveniles that are hardened criminals, you become a hardened criminal yourself. You’re a follower many times.”

“My heart bleeds,” said Escambia County Commissioner Lumon May, who represents District 3.

“Unfortunately too many times, the lives lost are people I know,” May said. “People have a preconceived notion that every murder, every shooting, happens in the inner city. But sometimes you can come from a great walk of life and find yourself in a bad place.”

Times have changed, says May. Before he was elected to the commission, he says no money was put into what he calls “human capital.” May is optimistic, believing the glass is half-full rather than half-empty, when it comes to helping kids stay on the straight and narrow.

“Because many times we forget to highlight the great contributions that many of our children are making,” said May. “We have one of the most aggressive summer youth and after-school programs. Every year, we’re employing inner-city children – 100 to 200 children – to give them a job, to get them out of the pockets of poverty.” 

Law enforcement agencies are also reaching out to the local faith community, believing they can reach would-be youthful offenders in a way that secular law cannot. Rev. Lonnie Wesley III, who pastors Greater Little Rock Baptist Church, has some advice for them — stop and think about what you’re doing, and then ask yourself this:

“Is that heroin? Is that weed? Is that crack? Is that cocaine? Whatever it is you’re doing, is it really, really worth seeing the hurt on your mother’s face, your grandmother’s face, your father’s face? Is it really worth all of the pain that you are inflicting?” 

Credit Jennie McKeon / WUWF
Rev. C.C. Lambert speaks about his son, Justice Walker, who was shot and killed last month.

In calling for more help from the community, Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan says as much of a cliché it’s become, the village actually does work.

“And it is heartbreaking to see that we’re dealing with this in Escambia County,” Morgan said. “Because I will tell you, 10, 12, 15 years ago I would have never predicted something like this in Escambia County. It’s not who we are, but we’re dealing with it today. We’ve got to come together collectively to fix this, folks.

“I can’t do it alone, and you can’t do it alone.”

Anyone with information on a crime or suspicious activity is urged to call Crimestoppers at 433-7867, www.gulfcoastcrimestoppers.org, or your local law enforcement agency.