City leaders eye long-term plan to crack down on gang violence

Sheriff, state attorney & mayor working together to stop Jacksonville's gangs

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – As Jacksonville continues to grapple with violent crime, city leaders want to make this clear: the violence is mostly linked to gang activity, and the general public has little to fear.

Even though Mayor Lenny Curry, Sheriff Mike Williams and State Attorney Melissa Nelson each have a role to play when it comes to public safety, they're working together to confront the issue head-on.

While it may seem like a widespread problem, the trio told News4Jax in a recent interview, it's actually a relatively small number of people behind the crimes you read about or see on the news.

"Where it's happening is largely gangs," said Curry. "We are working and collaborating together to solve it."

On the surface, violent crime may appear to be a huge, complex issue, Williams said. In reality, he said, it is a manageable problem that authorities can handle with the right resources and teamwork.

"You have about one percent of our population, you know maybe 800 people -- 800 people whose names we know, by the way -- who are involved in these kinds of activities," the sheriff said.

It's that tiny percentage of the city's population that contributes to more than 40 percent of the crime, said Nelson, who noted that it is a problem that won't be solved through traditional means.

"We're dedicating resources to this," she said. "But this needs to be a comprehensive approach, so it's not just arrest and prosecution."

Nelson said containing means using a precise approach to law enforcement. Like the Sheriff's Office's Gang Unit, the State Attorney's Office has formed a unit aimed at ferreting out violent offenders.

She said her office's team is embedded with like-minded units at the Sheriff's Office and shares information and other resources with them.

"We stood up a targeted prosecution unit, we invested some of our best talent in that unit, and it complements the violent crime impact team and the work in the Gang Unit at JSO," she said.

The trio acknowledged many of the shootings that make headlines aren't happening in a vacuum. Beyond gang violence, they said, Jacksonville remains a safe place to live and raise a family.

"It's a very small percentage of folks committing most of these violent acts," Curry said. "Random acts of violence are not happening all over the city on any given night."

While Curry, Williams and Nelson said they stand by their oaths to prosecute crime when it happens, they're really working toward preventing it from happening altogether.

"The city is investing in technologies that we are saying we could benefit from, and we're working collaboratively with the Sheriff's Office in trying to be precise and addressing this problem," said Nelson.

But it's not enough to arrest those responsible for gang violence on a case by case basis. The trio said they need to reach the address the problem's root causes.

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"Who are the young people, the five, six, seven, eight-year-olds who are exposed to this gang culture? Because if we don't get to them, they are next," warned Curry. "We've got a gang member that's bad and needs to be arrested and prosecuted. There is likely a child five, six, seven, eight, nine years old that's being and has been exposed to that."

"We're good people in Jacksonville," he added. "We understand that we've got to wrap our arms around that child, care for that child, and find a better way forward."

Curry said one way the city has reformed the way it serves children is with the creation of the Kids Hope Alliance, with after-school programs and other ways to engage young people in positive activities.

To help the State Attorney’s Office, the city just received a $1.5 million federal grant. That goes toward Juvenile Justice diversion programs to help some of the youth get back on the right track.

"It does have to be a long-term strategy that is in place beyond one sheriff, beyond one mayor, beyond one state attorney," said Williams. "The community has to really get behind this idea, these strategies of investing in young people."

Nelson wants the city to invest in the strategy of a group called “Cure Violence,” treating violence like a disease that can be eliminated. The city is already working on an “Arrest Alert System” to coordinate efforts among police and prosecutors.

But a serious challenge is getting the message of hope to take root in communities where gangs thrive.

"That's why we've got to have the support of the community and helping us deliver a variety of messages, and we do that you know, every day," Williams said. "We're knocking on doors of these gang members and saying: 'Here's what you're exposed to, and not only are you looking at potential of being gunned down in the street, but if we catch you, and we're working hard on catching you every day, you're going to spend the rest of your life in prison.'"

"Hopefully the three of us and the folks we work with can deliver a message, but there is science that suggests that people who actually have been involved in gangs themselves can deliver that message perhaps more effectively," said Nelson.

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