Pensacola Asks for Federal Help with Gun Violence

Aug 5, 2019

Credit Dept. of Justice

After a number of incidents of gun violence, the City of Pensacola is calling in Uncle Sam to help them find solutions.

Tentative details were announced during Mayor Grover Robinson’s weekly news conference on Monday.

“Our first and highest priority is certainly to protect our citizens and to make sure that we protect them from gun violence in any way we can do that,” said Robinson.

The Mayor, City Administrator Chris Holley and Police Chief Tommi Lyter contacted Larry Keefe, the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Florida. Their letter points to similar task forces elsewhere around the state as a possible blueprint for one in Pensacola.

“This program had been done both in Tallahassee and Gainesville, and it successfully removed a lot of the gun violence in those areas,” said Robinson. “We certainly have seen a spike in recently here and we want to take care of some of those problems we’ve seen here in Pensacola and Escambia County.”

A meeting is scheduled for Thursday at Pensacola City Hall with Keefe and local officials to hammer out the particulars in setting up the panel.

“[Keefe] will be here to talk with myself, but also really to talk with Chief Lyter; once we get over the operations side, I’ll turn it over to the Chief,” said Robinson. “But I do believe the other part of the partnership and what they’re working on, that’s going to happen out of the [U.S.] District Attorney’s Office. We’ve said anybody and everybody that can help.”

Asst. U.S. Attorney Jeff Tharp (R) speaks to the media as Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson looks on.
Credit Dave Dunwoody, WUWF Public Media

The idea for a task force on gun violence stems in large part from the slaying of 20-year-old Elizabeth Harris, who was shot in the parking lot near the Platinum Night Club on North Palafox Street in late May.

“If you remember right after that, we had a series of shootings after that through retaliation, back-and-forth,” said Robinson. “We had the shooting with the person on Garden Street, and that was back when [Escambia County] Commissioner [Lumon] May and I said ‘we need to have this.’ It was shortly after that I got a phone call that said ‘hey, there’s this thing working in Tallahassee, have you looked into it?’ This has been in the works for some time.”

“We are here to support any way we can,” said Jeff Tharp, an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Florida. That support is expected to include training local law enforcement officers using resources from the Department of Justice and its agencies – FBI, DEA, U.S. Marshal Service and ATF. A meeting was held last week to begin intra-agency coordination. 

“The next step is coordinating more with the city, but also this issue isn’t just a local, Pensacola issue,” Tharp said. “It’s a regional issue so we’re going to ask our surrounding law enforcement agencies in the surrounding communities to also join the task force. And those invites will be going out soon.”

Besides the deep pockets, Tharp says DOJ can also cast a wider net than local, regional and state authorities.

“We can go outside the city of Pensacola; we can go outside the state of Florida, can go outside even our country’s borders to go after people that commit crime,” said Tharp. “But one of the other pieces that people don’t know about is the training piece. We have grants and different programs; these now will be highlighted with Pensacola Police and we’ll have events for local law enforcement.”

But, this is not a new idea. There was a gun task force in Escambia County a number of years ago, and Pensacola Police Chief Tommi Lyter says they’re currently working with many of the same agencies that are part of the new panel.

“We have a partnership right now with the ATF Gun Crimes Task Force; with the DEA through HIDTA [High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas program], with the U.S. Marshals,” Lyter said. “What this does really is bring everything together under the U.S. Attorney’s Office.”

Pensacola :Police Chief Tommi Lyter.
Credit Dave Dunwoody, WUWF Public Media

One of obstacles in providing training to Pensacola police officers, says Lyter, is the turnover within the department involving the personnel who provide the training for what the Chief calls a “very young” police department.

“I’m standing here right now; I’ve got two officers up in Kansas City in a ‘Train the Trainer’ class, and this stuff is very expensive. They’re going to bring that training back,” said Lyter. “Part of the appeal with our federal partners is the expertise that they bring to the table; and we’re going to try to capitalize on that knowledge while they’re here.”

Since the Elizabeth Harris shooting, Pensacola and Escambia County have seen an increase in gun-related incidents. An officer-involved shooting that left a 28-year-old man dead is under investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The latest are the slayings of a father and son on North Corry Field Road, and two men suffering non-life-threatening gunshot wounds early Monday in Ensley.