About 20 members and leaders of the Gainesville community gathered Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. to walk through the Duval neighborhood in East Gainesville.
Despite thunderstorms, Gainesville Mayor Lauren Poe and City Manager Lee Feldman joined Gainesville Police Department Chief Tony Jones and other members of GPD and the community for a walk through Forest Pines. The Duval neighborhood, home to Mount Carmel Baptist Church at 2505 NE 8th Ave, was chosen after violence among youth and gunfire in the area became a concern, Officer Wilfredo Perez, who is assigned to the Gainesville Housing Authority, an advocate and provider for affordable housing in Gainesville, said.
This year, there have been four shootings in the area between Eighth Avenue and 11th Place, Perez said to the crowd. No one was harmed, and GPD detectives don’t have many leads. GPD is constantly looking to community members for information, he said.
As the crowd moved through the neighborhood, dark clouds built up and thunder rumbled in the distance as officials and law enforcement spoke to neighbors. The walk ended early – around 6:30 p.m. – when heavy rain began.
Jones said he has walked through Gainesville neighborhoods for about five years to connect with residents and local organizations and address concerns in the community.
“We want to show the community that we’re a part of them and not apart from them,” Jones said.
He led the crowd and stopped to talk and laugh with neighbors outside of their homes. Poe and GPD Chief Inspector Jaime Kurnick clutched basketballs — ready to play with local kids at a neighborhood court.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Jones tried to hold the walks at least once a month, Kurnick said. The walk through Duval was just the second since the start of the pandemic.
Deborah Holt, the executive assistant to the chief of police, said the last walk was in the Southeast Gainesville residential district on April 6. During it, community members voiced their concerns about local safety issues.
Within a week of that walk, Holt said the public works department installed flashing lights at some crosswalks, added benches and shelter to some of the bus stops and improved lighting in the neighborhood’s streets.
She said the goal of the walks is to build a relationship with the community, and Chief Jones likes to listen to the public’s concerns while informing them about local resources.
“This is the beginning of getting a dialogue going to where the community feels confident in being able to come to us and asking for solutions,” Perez said.
At one point along the walk, the group stopped in an area where gunfire had been reported. Jones then talked about the Nspire program, which he said employs community members to mediate conflict and mobilize the community against violence. In order to qualify, he said the Nspire agents — or violence interrupters — undergo training on public mediation and case management.
Caleb Young, an Nspire supervisor and former East Gainesville resident, said the program uses information from concerned citizens and statistical crime data from GPD to find areas to focus on.
When activity is reported to their service desk, the agents go out in the neighborhoods and provide resources through job, fitness and wellness fairs. One of their focuses is creating healthy families, so they had a local fitness instructor visit the neighborhood and host a workout.
“They want to get out and talk with the community and engage them,” he said.
This engagement exposes citizens to GPD’s community outreach efforts as opposed to only seeing them when problems like increased crime arise, Young said.
Young said Nspire builds trust between the community and GPD, which is the first step to effective communication.
Officer Perez echoed the strategies of this program while describing his day-to-day policing. He said he tries to identify problems and concerns in the neighborhood to then find solutions.
Perez said youth fighting in the neighborhood is another persistent concern.
“Kids get antsy, and they start going back and forth, and they get into some fights,” he said.
GPD meets with families and school officials to find ways to prevent trouble in the future, he said.
The crowd stopped at the ELITE Force building at 1027 NE 25th Street to hear from Jasmin Hall, the vice president of resident services at the Gainesville Housing Authority. Hall introduced programs that will teach important career and life skills to young people in the community.
She talked about ELITE Force, which is designed to provide residents of Section 8, an affordable housing program, with career training and employment opportunities. Another program called Cultivating Ladies and Setting Standards in corporate America, or CLASS Inc., which is geared toward teaching young women entrepreneurial skills, was discussed.
Juanita Miles Hamilton, a 70-year-old resident of the Duval Neighborhood, said she joined the walk because of her desire to see more structured recreational programs for young people and her concerns for public safety.
Her concerns stem from the Peaceful Sundays, a weekly gathering at the T.B. McPherson Center where community members eat food, listen to music and play games together.She said the gatherings have outgrown the center and cause disruption in surrounding neighborhoods.
“It is everything but peaceful for us, and it flows over into all of the other neighborhoods and affects the quality of life for the residents living here,” she said.
The city approved an ordinance to lift restrictions on the consumption of open containers of alcohol on Sept. 12, 2020, which enables drinking among young people and disruptive weekend gatherings in the neighborhood, she said.
“It’s surrounded by residents, and it’s a nuisance,” she said. “They drive through all the neighborhoods with the loud music and throw bottles onto the sidewalk.”
She said she believes the city needs to work on getting a larger location for the event. She brought up some of these concerns to officials but believes more than a walk is needed to create change.
“I want to see some action,” she said. “I want to see some action on paper, some enforcement because we have to fix our own brokenness and not perpetuate it.”
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Lucy Lannigan is a third-year journalism student from Key West. She works as the health and environment reporter on the uni desk. When Lucy’s not reporting, she loves to paint and spend time outside.