Leaders unite to fight gun violence

Yesterday, Sheriff David Morgan, State Attorney Bill Eddins and County Commissioner Lumon May announced a concerted joint effort to curb gun violence that has claimed eight lives since the first of the year. They were joined by Chief Deputy Chip Simmons, Commissioner Robert Bender, Greater Little Rock Pastor Lonnie Wesley and community leader Willie Kirkland who each talked about the need for community involvement in dealing with the new “de-evolution of criminal activity” involving teenagers.

Sheriff Morgan confirmed to room packed with the ministers, families, law enforcement officers and the media what Inweekly  had reported last week: “We’re dealing with street level activity, we’re confirming it as we go along, where bounties are actually being taken out on other individuals in our community; meaning that they’re contract killers.”

“We’re seeing in this particular de-evolution of criminal activity in Escambia County that we find not only particularly threatening but we’re praying that it’s not what will become the new norm in Escambia County with our young people,” said the sheriff. “Most of the individuals that have been involved in this criminal activity recently are age 15 to 19. So, we have a new dynamic in the level of the crime and criminal activity in age groups with the uptick in that.”

Hampering investigations has been the lack of cooperation from victims, their families, friends and neighborhoods.

“We can’t place a deputy in every home. And so therefore without the community support, we will fail,” said Morgan. He said victims have refused to provide information. The same thing happens when investigator knock on doors in the neighborhoods where shootings have occurred.

“We have people in our community refusing to turn over video tapes of security systems that they have, that will assist us,” said the sheriff. “It’s just unbelievable, what we’re dealing with here. We have more than enough people and more than enough experience to respond to this crime, solve them and suppress them, if we get the support of the community.”

Commissioner Lumon May said, “My heart bleeds. Unfortunately, too many times the lives lost are people that I know.”

He talked about how the county has invested more money in human capital–aggressive summer youth and after-school programs, internships and buying land in crime-ridden areas.

Commissioner May announced that Escambia County Sheriff’s Office and Board of County Commissioners were re-initiating the clean sweep program. Operation Clean Sweep was halted three years ago due to budget concerns.

Here is how ECSO described the initiative in 2011: “The focus of ‘Operation Clean Sweep’ is to work with Neighborhood Watch groups, residents, churches and business owners to control and prevent the damaging effects of criminal activity through Eradication, Enforcement and Education. The Operation Task Force works closely with Escambia County Animal Control, Environmental Law Enforcement, the United States Military volunteers, Escambia County Roads and Bridges and Neighborhood Watch groups to clean up neighborhoods and educate citizens on preventive measures that can be implemented to minimize possible crimes.”

The program was very successful.  From a 2011 press release regarding a clean sweep in Navy Point area: “Ten tons of debris was collected in The Escambia County Sheriff’s Office’s Operation Clean Sweep today in the Navy Point community. Traffic checkpoints issued 13 citations.  Three arrests were made, three warrants served and Code Enforcement recorded 12 violations.”

NorthEscambia.com reported on a clean sweep in Cottage Hill in May 2017: “Six warrants were served, eight arrests were made, 20 code violations were issued by Escambia County Code Enforcement and 13 traffic citations were issued.”

After the press conference, Commissioner May said he didn’t believe funding for the Operation Clean Sweep would be an issue. He said, “We will find the money.”

Pastor Wesley had a message those doing the shooting.

“If I could get the message to those young men who are responsible for the blood on the streets of our community, I would say to them stop and evaluate whether it’s really, really worth,” said Wesley. “I beg you to stop. Think about what you’re doing. Ask yourself the question, is that heroin? Is that weed? Is whatever you’re doing really worth seeing the hurt on your mother’s face, your grandmother’s face, your fathers face. Is it worth all of the pain you’re inflicting ?”

He continued, “At the end of the day, you’re going to get caught. You’re in a battle you cannot win.”

Pastor Wesley said that some of those caught up in crime may feel that they have no one to talk to about their lives. He said the community’s ministers willing to listen and walk with them when they turn themselves. He said, “Stop hurting everybody.”

Kirkland’s message was for the community to get involved.

“What our community has experienced in the last few weeks is unacceptable, very unacceptable,” said Kirkland. “We have experienced someone’s son or daughter take the lives of someone else’s kids. I am here today to ask our community to come together in unity.”

He thanked the audience for coming.  “I appreciate you guys for coming out. I want to thank the sheriff’s department, the county, I want to thank you all for having me today. But we need your help. We need your help.”

Photo courtesy of Jennifer McKeon, WUWF