Guns, Drugs & Gangs: An inside look at how Jacksonville police address violent crime

News4JAX I-TEAM embeds with detectives using new tactics, technology to reduce violence

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Fighting violent crime with aggressive tactics, advanced technology and inter-agency information sharing, Jacksonville law enforcement strategies are netting large numbers of arrests and case leads.

Jacksonville Sheriff T.K. Waters believes high-tech, targeted crime fighting will help reduce violence as the city struggles with a high number of shootings and homicides.

Police say there are 32 active gangs with over 580 members in Jacksonville and they’re responsible for a large portion of the shootings. Drug-related and domestic violence make up another large portion of the gun violence.

In response, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and the State Attorney’s Office are combing forces -- and resources -- with the Crime Gun Intelligence Center, or CGIC.

The goal is to stop the violence before it happens, a term called violence intervention.

A weapon seized during a Jacksonville Sheriff's Office operation. (WJXT)

Police forces across the country have faced scrutiny about their crime-fighting techniques and budgets.

The News4JAX I-TEAM has requested an inside look at the process of how law enforcement tackles violent crime for years. In January, JSO allowed the I-TEAM to spend several days and nights with special units attached to the project. Sheriff Waters, who took office in November, said it was a chance for the public to see what happens behind the scenes of an investigation. It’s the first time a news crew has been granted this access.

JSO’s violence reduction strategy is made up of members of the Gang Unit, Violent Crimes Unit, the Community Problem Response Unit, and the agency’s own firearms lab.

A violent morning

On the morning of Jan. 19, a group of detectives gathered at the CGIC to share intelligence on active cases. They had a long list of subjects they were watching. Many were documented gang members, suspected shooters, or those believed to be involved in violent crimes. There was a long list on a whiteboard of subjects. Detectives also had often thick case files for each one.

Typically, supervisors from several violence reduction units meet before going on deployments, where detectives and task-force officers sweep the city to round up suspects with warrants, as well as illegally possessed guns and drugs.

However, that morning, before the team could start its operation, a call came in.

There was a homicide on Emerson Street near St. Augustine Road at a local tint shop.

A man in his 30s was dead. A woman was also shot and taken to the hospital. A bullet-ridden SUV was left along the busy street.

Within minutes, police made a connection. The dead man was on their watch list.

NOTE: Due to Marsy’s Law and the cases remaining active at the time of this article’s publication, News4JAX is not releasing the identities of victims, suspects, or persons of interest. News4JAX and JSO agreed this story would not compromise the agency’s operational security or interfere with active investigations.

News4JAX rushed to the scene with Sgt. Johnny Cooke, the supervisor of JSO’s gang unit.

“They have a description, color of a vehicle,” he said. “But witnesses are saying that the shooters came from multiple directions. So they’re still trying to put it all together. It was definitely an ambush. Somebody was watching him. They knew exactly where he was, where he was going to be, and they waited for the opportunity to do what they wanted to do.”

Cooke said signs pointed to this being a gang hit. He said detectives had a good idea about rival groups who could be responsible for the ambush attack.

“[The man] is involved with people that have been going back-and-forth on these shootings,” he said. “These are all retaliation shootings. It seems like recently if they can’t get the guy they’re going after, they’re going after any friends, any family, anybody that has to do with them.”

As homicide detectives and gang unit detectives gathered details, evidence technicians quickly collected spent shell casings. There were dozens. Those were expedited to JSO’s in-house firearms lab, which is housed in the agency’s property room facility.

Ballistics experts, many of whom previously worked at a state lab, entered the casings into a machine to see if they matched with shells from other shootings. They used high-powered microscopes and cameras to search for unique markings which can be traced to an individual firearm.

At the same time, in a sealed firing range, they test-fired guns officers legally seized or recovered. A national ATF database called the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network (NIBIN) could connect those guns to casings found at shootings. It’s similar to a fingerprint database.

“Having NIBIN and the ability to link firearms to different scenes that in the past we didn’t even know were linked creates a whole new picture,” said CGIC Sgt. Mark Campanaro. “It gives new information as far as witnesses. Potential suspects.”

National Integrated Ballistic Information Network helps authorities match bullets from separate crimes. (WJXT)

Back on the streets, JSO’s Community Problem Response Unit, known as CPR, closed in on potential suspects.

CPR is a team of uniformed tactical detectives that helps investigators take down wanted suspects and gathers intelligence on the streets. The team uses covert vehicles and confidential informants to work undercover.

Police intelligence, shared among units within CGIC, led them to a home on a dead-end street in McCoy’s Creek. Detectives believed it was where two brothers involved in the shooting were hiding out. The pair was already on probation after being released from prison.

Lt. Rickie Valentine, who leads the CPR unit, took over the operation, coordinating crews who moved in to surround the home and a nearby convenience store the men often go to.

“All right, seal that house,” he told his team over the radio. “Seal everything around it. I don’t want anything coming in or out. Detain anybody involved.”

The team surrounded the two properties and quickly spotted a vehicle matching the one from that morning’s murder across the street from the home.

CPR detectives brought out their rifles and called for a police helicopter overhead. K-9 units and the men’s probation officers also arrived as they banged on the door of the home. By simply leaving the home, the men would be in violation of their probation.

As the sun set, detectives worked to get a search warrant to enter the house and the SWAT team arrived with armored vehicles.

JSO’s SWAT team assists with executing high-risk warrants and arrests.

Jacksonville Sheriff T.K. Waters believes high-tech, targeted crime fighting will help lower violence as the city struggles with a high number of shootings and homicides. (WJXT)

Officers acknowledged that they didn’t know who was behind the door and that extreme danger could be waiting for them inside.

Two siblings emerged. Though they were not suspected in any violent crimes, they were questioned.

That evening, police found the two men they were looking for nearby and took them in for questioning.

They’re currently in jail on other charges. A third man was arrested after a traffic stop.

The case remains open, and the homicide unit has taken over the full investigation.

“There are a very small number of people in the city who are causing a lot of the violence,” said JSO Assistant Chief Michael Paul, a long-time detective who now runs CGIC. “And our goal is to reduce that violence and to put these people in jail or prison.”

His office of hand-picked detectives uses new technology and police intelligence to locate shooters fast, but he points out the focus is on stopping the violence before it happens by identifying those likely to be shooters or targets. Many shooters are linked to several different attacks. Some are tied to multiple murders.

The center opened in 2019 under Sheriff Mike Williams, in conjunction with State Attorney Melissa Nelson’s office and the ATF. Current Sheriff Waters was integral in starting the center and led the JSO team.

News4JAX I-TEAM records show 389 people were shot that year in Jacksonville.

  • 554 people were shot in 2020. That’s an all-time high.
  • 438 people were shot in 2021.
  • 418 were shot in 2022. The past two years show a slight drop in shooting victims, even as the city’s population grows.

CGIC’s current discretionary budget for violence reduction deployments is $2 million a year, according to JSO records. News4JAX has requested the overall budget for the center, which is much larger.

Chief Paul acknowledged there’s a large taxpayer tab for public safety and people can be skeptical if the money spent on the strategy is effective as violent crime continues.

“What we do on a daily basis, the number of firearms we recover on a daily basis, the number of people that get arrested for gun crimes on a daily basis, and we use analytics, we use intelligence, we use all sorts of things to identify these people,” he said. “And I cannot imagine what the city would look like if we weren’t doing the work we’re doing.”

“If we get these people off the street, hopefully, further crime won’t happen,” said Sgt. Brandi Merritt, a supervisor with the Violent Crime Unit. “Our unit is a responsive unit. So we’re responding to crime that’s happening. Our hope is that our response and our investigations will keep further crime from happening.”

Proactive policing

Here’s how one of our nights embedded with investigators went:

It’s about 8 p.m. on a Wednesday, and a city-wide violence reduction task force is working cases, looking for wanted suspects and conducting surveillance on persons of interest in violent crimes.

A tactical team of CPR detectives in covert units has been watching an apartment where documented gang members have been spotted repeatedly. Many, detectives say, are involved in shootings throughout the city.

As several teens get into a car, detectives follow them. Marked units catch up and pull over the vehicle. Detectives say many times persons of interest will pull over if their car is clean, without drugs or weapons, and will flee if they have illegal items.

This time, after passing over the Buckman Bridge, the sedan pulls over for a traffic violation.

Uniformed detectives smell marijuana and without a medical marijuana card or hemp, it’s enough to search the vehicle.

One of the teens has a blunt. He begins defying the officers and is put into handcuffs.

“So, you think I got a gun in my pocket? That what you think?” he says.

His anger escalates as he’s taken to a patrol car. In the backseat, he begins kicking the door. He’ll be charged with drug possession and resisting arrest.

An investigator searches a vehicle. (WJXT)

A search of the car comes back clean. The other occupants, while persons of interest in shootings, are not charged and are free to go with a warning. They use their phones to take videos of the officers, even sharing the stop on a Facebook Live feed. Detectives say they routinely have subjects record them and share pictures and videos of them.

“Even if they do get spooked tonight, that’s a win for tonight,” said Sgt. Eric Dingler, a supervisor with the CPR unit. “Hopefully they know that we’re out watching them, being aggressive within the bounds of the law. And they’re not going to go do a shooting tonight.”

The teams are well aware police practices are in the spotlight and nationally, law enforcement is walking a fine line between fighting violent crime and what some would consider government overreach.

News4JAX rode with detectives the same month as the controversial deadly police beating of Tyre Nichols in Memphis. A tactical unit used to fight violent crime in that city, called SCORPION, was disbanded after multiple officers were charged with murder.

Sheriff Waters condemned the Memphis officers’ actions after reviewing video of Nichols’ violent arrest.

“I stand with our community in condemning this behavior,” he said. “Those officers’ actions do not reflect the culture of law enforcement in our agency or in this country. We are a society of laws, and no one is above the law.”

Public scrutiny is not stopping JSO from city-wide violence reduction deployments, bringing in task forces to run license plates, pull over vehicles connected to crime and arrest wanted suspects.

“Don’t call me because you’re arresting someone that’s got two suspensions on their license,” Lt. Valentine told his team during a briefing. “That’s not what I want. Call me because you’ve got somebody that’s got a large amount of drugs, guns, or somebody is going to lead me to that. That’s what we focus on.”

Hope and hammer

While aggressive policing is part of the strategy to reduce violent crime and gang activity, so is appealing to those involved with dangerous groups or suspects.

Early one morning, JSO’s violence reduction strategy supervisors met at the CGIC. It wasn’t all police. There were also pastors and social workers.

Dr. Garland Scott, a local pastor brought on as a civilian staff member with JSO, started the meeting with a prayer.

“Father, we thank you for this day. We ask you to watch over ourselves, to execute pure justice father for those that are terrorizing this neighborhood,” Scott said. “And watch over our families most of all.”

Sgt. Cooke briefed the team on the gang unit’s intelligence. He opened files of several documented gang members who they wanted to contact.

This is called Customs Notifications. JSO and partners identify those who are involved with violent suspects and gangs, posting images with weapons and gang signs. These young people are typically not charged with violent crimes, but detectives believe they will be in the near future. If they’re not perpetrators, they could become victims.

Minutes after the briefing, a caravan of detectives, pastors, and social workers went door to door trying to make contact with the people on their list. News4JAX could not record the encounters but listened to an exchange.

The goal is to gain the trust of the individuals and their families and convince them to give up their life of crime. It can be an uphill battle.

Those involved use a technique called the hope and hammer.

The hope: The team will get the subjects resources, a job, potentially even a new place to live. Pastor Scott, a former gang member in New York, tells them they can turn their lives around and be productive members of society. They can succeed. They can thrive.

In many cases, the subjects turn down the offer. However, about 35% of the time, Scott said, they end up calling him asking for his assistance.

The hammer: Scott and the detectives tell the subjects they’re in a dangerous position where they’re likely to end up in prison or dead. It’s the harsh reality of gang life and violent crime. Those who don’t make efforts to get out of the criminal life are warned that police will be after them for any illegal activity.

JSO and partners have made a total of 834 custom notifications since the program began in 2016. In 2022, the team conducted 126.

The numbers

News4JAX rode with detectives on an evening deployment, as task forces proactively pulled over vehicles believed to be involved in criminal activity. Detectives and officers made numerous arrests, charging convicted felons with carrying weapons, seizing large amounts of drugs, and looking for suspicious activity.

Seized guns went to the firearms lab to see if they were connected to any other crimes. Suspects with warrants were brought to the CGIC for questioning.

Weapons and ammunition seized during Jacksonville Sheriff's Office operations. (WJXT)

As News4JAX rode along, detectives from the CPR and Violent Crime Units also responded to multiple shootings where people weren’t killed. One, in Northwest Jacksonville, included a man being shot outside of a convenience store. CPR detectives were just blocks away and heard the gunfire.

Not long after, about 2 miles away, police were called to a vehicle that crashed into a pole. Officers found it riddled with bullets. The driver fled. Detectives believe that vehicle was linked to nearby violence.

“There is no magic fairy dust that’s going to stop this,” said Lt. Valentine. “It’s just being able to do the best we can with what we have. And I think we do.”

The I-TEAM requested numbers from the CGIC showing cases, arrests, and leads. Investigators provided the following numbers.

Incidents involving a discharge of a firearm:

  • 2022: 688
  • 2021: 830

Violent Crime Unit assigned cases:

  • 2022: 361
  • 2021: 371

*the Violent Crime Unit investigates non-fatal shootings where someone is hurt. The Homicide Unit falls under the major crimes unit and is not included in these numbers.

Incidents with NIBIN leads:

  • 2022: 829
  • 2021: 879

NIBIN leads from firearm test fires:

  • 2022: 432
  • 2021: 407

Gang Unit:

  • There are currently 32 active documented gangs in Jacksonville
  • 572 documented members

Community Problem Response Unit (CPR) in 2022:

  • Felony Arrests: 912
  • Firearms Recovered: 341
  • Arrest Warrants Served: 359

Criminal Homicides (Murder/Manslaughter):

  • 2022: 127
  • 2021: 112

Chief Paul and Lt. Valentine pointed out that it’s hard to quantify what violent crime numbers would be without the violence reduction strategies.

“With the old method of police work, where you stop a car with four people in the car, and there’s one gun, we arrest all four for constructive possession, that case gets dropped,” Lt. Valentine said. “That’s not the way we do it today. We are very strategic on how we do it. And instead, we have to let all four individuals go and do a better investigation to later come back and definitively put that on one person, which recently we did. We had an individual three months ago that had been arrested 11 times for constructive possession. Every case had been dropped. This time we didn’t arrest him. Instead, we got a DNA sample. We sent the gun off, his DNA came back on the gun, and now he’s convicted. That’s the way you do it.”

Sheriff Waters said he plans to expand the CGIC center and JSO’s violence reduction strategy by committing more resources and funding to the efforts.

State Attorney Nelson said, “Jacksonville’s Crime Gun Intelligence Center remains one of the best investments made in our fight against violent crime. CGIC investigative leads have over and again led to the identification and incapacitation of our area’s most dangerous criminal shooters.”

I-TEAM investigator Vic Micolucci sits down with Sheriff T.K. Waters to discuss plans to cut down on the city's violence.

About the Author:

Lifetime Jacksonville resident anchors the 8 and 9 a.m. weekday newscasts and is part of the News4Jax I-Team.