Andrew Skerritt: The capital city confronts gun violence, belatedly

Earlier this month, Tallahassee was rocked by the high-profile shooting of a Florida State law professor. Dan Markel was gunned down in his own house on the nice side of town.

As news of the killing spread, the Tallahassee Police Department moved quickly to reassure the residents of Markel’s neighborhood: He wasn’t the victim of some random burglary and robbery gone bad. They almost seemed relieved that Markel’s murder wasn’t part one of the random violence that seems to be sweeping the state capital.

You might be surprised to learn that in Florida, the Tallahassee area shamefully boasts a gun violence rate second only to Miami. TPD responded to more than 270 shooting incidents last year. For some neighborhood residents, it’s as if the snap, crackle and pop of fireworks never quite ends.

Gun violence isn’t unique to Tallahassee. St. Petersburg,  Jaccksonville and Miami residents see their share of senseless gun violence. After all, this is Florida. But a city that prides itself in looking forward must stand back and take a hard look at itself.

It has taken an outsider to do what the city’s political establishment has been too timid to do. Tallahassee Police Chief Michael DeLeo said what those more interested in PR didn’t have the courage or honesty to say.  He declared that the city has a problem with gun violence. The former assistant Plantation police chief told the Tallahassee Democrat that for too long the community has given itself a pass when it comes to ignoring violent crime.

DeLeo was being diplomatic. This city of educators, politicians and civil servants has been too smug for too long. For far too long the body count was on the wrong side of town. But in recent months, the bad guys have been emboldened enough to exchange gunfire with the police. That really got the attention of the police brass.

DeLeo has organized a Community Leadership Council on Gun Violence. The 15-member council is charged with providing “unfiltered feedback”  to the chief. He also convinced the Tallahassee City Commission to pay for a violent crime response team by adding six new positions.

But with law enforcement agencies for two universities and a college, city, county and Florida High Patrol, Florida Department of Law Enforcement office, Capitol and federal court officers, the Tallahassee area probably has more law enforcement officers per capita than any other region in this state. Clearly, a lack of law enforcement officers isn’t the problem. Hence, the call for community involvement.

Inspired by DeLeo’s call to action, local black ministers have stepped forward with an eight-point plan that includes mentorship programs for at-risk youths and tearing down blighted buildings.

 The Rev. Julius McAllister Jr., senior pastor of Bethel A.M.E. Church, was one of the coalition of 13 ministers who spoke at a recent press conference.

“We have seen funeral after funeral after funeral,” McAllister said.

Unfortunately, too many ministers, in too many cities throughout this state, share McAllister’s lament.

Andrew J. Skerritt is author of Ashamed to Die: Silence, Denial and the AIDS Epidemic in the South. He lives in Tallahassee. Follow him on Twitter @andrewjskerritt. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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