Jacksonville has been plagued by five homicides so far this month. Monday night's killing in Mayport was the 68th homicide of the year.
Included in those are the deaths of a 14-year-old boy and a 16-year-old boy, who were gunned down this past week.
Many of the shootings are happening on the Northside and in Northwest Jacksonville, areas that are part of Operation Ceasefire, where Jacksonville Sheriff John Rutherford is concentrating additional resources to try to stop the violence.
That violence is sparking fear in people who live there, and the City Council members who represent the areas said enough is enough, the senseless killing has to stop.
“There's a bunch of thugs who have invaded the community, who have decided that they have no respect for the citizens all,” City Councilwoman Denise Lee said. “They rob, they break in, they shoot at the police and they have become a detriment to the community.”
Lee didn't mince words describing what she said is evil in the community she represents.
“It is definitely worse,” Lee said. “It is worse.”
She said she's fed up with all the killings, including a recent rash involving teenagers.
The 14-year-old and 16-year-old killed last week were both suspected drive-by shootings, and neighbors told News4Jax the violence was gang-related.
“The thugs and the thugettes have decided they are organized,” Lee said. “It is the community that needs to be organized. They are organized, it is obvious because they continue.”
Lee said the kids are dropping out of school and getting into trouble. Many can't read, so they can't get jobs. And what new company would want to come in to a place plagued by violence?
“This is a total community problem,” Lee said. “And the only way that we can solve it is that those who want a quality of life and a secure community and as much of a crime-free community as we can have, we have got to stop condoning bad behavior. We've got to stop saying, 'We need to start a new program.' Because you can't force people into a program. So we have to use the existing laws that we have, and if they are too antiquated, then that we need to change them.”
City Councilman Johnny Gaffney represents the Northside, and he too hates the violence that's becoming commonplace.
“When we had the melee at the movie theater, I said back then it was gang-related,” Gaffney said. “All of our children are not bad; it's a few. And you make it bad for the whole city.”
Gaffney said everyone needs to help fix it.
“Parents need to know where their children are at all times,” Gaffney said. “They need to know who their kids associate themselves with. … It's a combination, and I think jobs is most important. The kids got to, they feel desperate like nobody cares.”
Meanwhile, the continuing violence is wearing on members of the community, like Wesley Jerome Ashley.
“It breaks my heart,” said Ashley, who works at a barber shop in Durkeeville. “We don't love God like we should. We don't love our neighbor. If we loved our neighbor and treated our neighbor like we wanted to be treated, the problem would go away.”
Rutherford wasn't available to discuss the problem Tuesday, but Monday he said he was pleased that there will be more money in next year's city budget to hire more officers and put them in the areas where they're needed the most.
Besides the police, another group trying to find solutions to the violence is Project SOS, a program that counsels at-risk kids.
“There is no need for this, it is senseless,” said Pam Mullarkey, CEO of Project SOS. “It is deplorable that people don't value life, and everyone's life counts.”
Mullarkey started Project SOS, which teaches youth about crime and gangs. She said both are huge problems in Jacksonville, especially for boys.
“Basically, with the gang they miss fathers, they need male mentors,” Mullarkey said. “Our males are so valuable, and we just don't have them in the home in so many cases. So these boys look to each other for that male bonding.”
Mullarkey used to have a former gang member on staff at Project SOS. She said all he needed was love and support.
“This young man dropped out of school in the fifth grade,” Mullarkey said. “He started drinking and drugging at age 10. And he was the leader of the gang by age 13. He had the biggest muscles I had ever seen. Not even in school. But once he found somebody that really cared about him, he changed his whole life.”
Cutting down on crime in the city is no easy task, but Mullarkey said it can be done.
“Every male that is listening to this can become a mentor for another young boy that needs that,” Mullarkey said. “They have to step out of their own comfort zone to do it.”
Project SOS has booklets it gives out to mentors that talk about setting goals, getting prepared for life's challenges and avoiding a lifestyle of crime. The booklets are free and can be picked up at their office at 7845 Baymeadows Way in Jacksonville. For more information on Project SOS, call 904-296-9950 or visit ProjectSOS.com.