Notes from community meeting on violence

The Escambia County Sherriff’s conference room was standing room only Friday afternoon at the community meeting on the violence. Sheriff David Morgan addressed the group.

“You being here speaks volumes to how much we all care about this community,” Morgan said.

He told the crowd that Pensacola and Escambia County sit on Interstate 10, “the most dangerous highway in America” and we are the gateway to Florida. Morgan said the homicides, shootings and violent crimes are the results of a “perfect storm:”

1) Poverty and low paying jobs. “Our community has always had a lot of low paying service industry jobs. Many have been tittering at best, and then we were hit with the hurricanes and the recession. “Those living on the edge fall off the edge,” Morgan said. “People lost faith in the community.”
2) Lower rents. The sheriff talked about how landlords have had to lower rents to fill their rental properties. “Owners quit doing background checks,” he said and thereby dispersing a criminal element throughout the community.
3) Gangs. As he has said before gangs are here and entrenched. Sheriff Morgan said that his agency had recently arrested members of Gangster Disciples, a national gang out of Chicago,

“I can’t build a jail large enough and can’t hire enough deputies to stop this,” he said. “We can’t solve a community issue without community.”

Morgan refused to say that poverty was the only issue. “I grew up poor,” he said. “My family didn’t have running water or electricity until 1963. I don’t equate poor as bad. It never was where I grew up.”

Escambia County Commissioner Wilson Robertson spoke in support of the sheriff and the ECSO. “We must take this head on,” said Robertson. “We took criticism during the budget process, but we will adequately fund him to do his job. He has our support.”

Mayor-elect Ashton Hayward confirmed his support of any effort to stem the crime wave. “Public safety is number one,” Hayward said. “We must take ownership of our community.”

Hayward pledged to work with the county on this problem. “I will work tirelessly to deliver results.”

Sitting up front with Hayward and Robertson were leaders from the Movement for Change, Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and Escambia-Pensacola Human Relations Commission.

Ellison Bennett, local head of SCLC, said. “I read the papers and saw one murder after another. It tore me apart. We have to tell not only our young people, but all people–Stop the Violence.”

Bennett talked about he had grown up two blocks from where homicide victim Robert Witherspoon was killed. People are now afraid to go to the grocery or to church.
He appealed to the audience, “We don’t have to tolerate drive-by shootings. We can no longer be afraid to speak out. The community must work hand in hand with law enforcement.”

For three hours, the audience offered suggestions and support and expressed their concerns. There was a certain amount of posturing by leaders of various groups, elected official and those seeking to run for office one day. The general tone was positive.

Pensacola City Councilman John Jerralds suggested that the City and County work together and jointly decide on a curfew and no loitering laws. Jerrald was the only city council person at the meeting.

Robertson, who is vice chairman of the county commission, represented Commission chair Kevin White, who was unable to attend. He talked about the new community center that is being built in District 3 and it should help give young people more to do. Commissioner Marie Young did not attend the meeting. Commissioner Gene Valentino came late and spent 15 minutes speaking about his precinct captain system and the Beulah road camp…he didn’t identify anyone in the crowd as one of his captains.

F.L. Henderson, a SCLC leader in the 1970s, spoke about the breakdown of families. “We need to change our philosophy of family,” Henderson said. “People are so angry, which results in revenge. We’ve got to deal with it and start from within our families.”

A young man got up and talked about drug dealing in his neighborhood, Highland Terrance, and how he is thinking about moving his family to Milton.

Rita Grandberry, identified herself as the grandmother of victim #8 (Torey Jones), said, “It will take a community to bring this to an end. We must say we’re feed up with what is happening in our community.”

Mrs Reed, who has been a school teacher for 36 years, said that she was tired of the rhetoric. She asked the heads of the different civil rights groups what are they going to do. None of the responses were really that impressive. Movement for Change will have a Stop the Violence Rally in March; SCLC has a student visiting area schools talking about violence; and EPHC has the neighborhood accountability board to help first-time offenders in the criminal justice system and a small tutoring program. None had specific programs for dealing with these violent crimes.

Sheriff Morgan told the audience about his gang unit, neighborhood watch program and his Operation Clean Sweep, which is tackling one neighborhood a month. Warrington, Lincoln Park, Cantonment and Brownsville are the next four areas for the “sweeping.”