Sheriff David Morgan’s press conference began with a heartfelt plea for help and the hope that the recent shooting of a Pensacola High School cheerleader could be a turning point in how the community deals with crime.
There was a second message at the press conference, a message the white politicians and law enforcement officials might have missed—crime in Escambia County can’t be fought with a simple 45-minute press conference. Its roots are much deeper.
The press announcement had invited the media and “any concerned member of the community” to the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office for the launch of a series of public service television spots featuring Pastor Rodney Jones. The spots encouraged community involvement in reporting crimes and combating gun violence.
The release had a line that was often quoted by the media in its reports on the upcoming meeting: “The greatest weapon we have in fighting crime is a community that will no longer accept it.”
The media and the black community did show up, packing the training room at the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office. African-American leaders, ministers and friends and family of Kenteyonna Anderson, the 14-year-old girl who was shot and killed a week earlier on West Maxwell Street, sat with the print, television and radio reporters to hear what the sheriff had to say.
The “Take Back Your Streets” spots drew applause but the mix of messages from Morgan, Superintendent Malcolm Thomas, Commissioner Lumon May and Pastor Jones gave the meeting a different and, at times, conflicting tone. And it was those speeches—part sermon, part chastisement, part call to action and part campaign rhetoric—that showed the gap in how the white and black communities view crime.
Morgan and Thomas talked about the death of Anderson being a call of action for the African-American community to help law enforcement fight crime in their neighborhoods. May and Jones spoke for the need for programs and jobs to give people hope. The black leaders wanted to see the county be more proactive, instead of reactive, in how it deals with crime.
Pleas for Help
Sheriff Morgan started strong. He said investigators had hit a wall in finding Anderson’s killer—a wall of silence.
“Let me start by saying something to the black community, I love you and care deeply about you,” he said. “My heart is wretched over this last killing. I’ve told people in this community if this crime didn’t wretch your heart, then you have no heart.”
Morgan said that he was stepping up the community-oriented policing, was reorganizing his intelligence-based policing that focuses on high-crime areas and would be aggressively promoting the “Take Back Your Streets” campaign.
The sheriff said that his investigators and crime scene technicians had spent nearly 400 hours on Anderson’s homicide. They know that the teenager was shot in the back as the result of a neighborhood dispute between two males an estimated 340 feet away. They don’t know who the killer is, even though between 15-30 people have direct knowledge about the shooting, according to the sheriff.
“We’re hitting a wall of silence,” said Morgan. “It’s incumbent upon us as a community to step forward and say this is unacceptable for Escambia County. That is not who we are.”
He told them that he needed them to give him leads. “I need your help. Without your help, we will surely fail. The unsolved homicides in Escambia County are the result of the wall of silence.”
Superintendent Thomas, the son of a preacher, opened with a series of rhetorical questions. “What kind of community are we? When will enough be enough? How many 14-year-olds have to give their lives? When will we be fed up enough to make a call?”
He said that he can control young people in his buildings during school hours, but he needs the community to help after school hours.
“I agree with the sheriff our community is better than what we have been seeing,” said Thomas, “and I think we have a right and responsibility to expect more out of our community—that we step up, we stand up and we speak up and let’s put an end to this.”
He said, “I think this is a breaking point.”
Need for Hope
Commissioner May wanted to take the press conference in a different direction. He spoke on the need for more city and county programs in the African-American neighborhoods. The commissioner challenged his fellow commissioners, the mayor, sheriff and school superintendent for the roles they play.
“Law enforcement gets involved after the crime is committed,” said May. “Prevention is the key.”
He pointed out that Escambia County spends less on social services than any other county in the state. The commissioner linked the high crime rate to the failing and closed schools in his neighborhoods and the lack of job opportunities for African-Americans.
“People have to feel safe in their neighborhoods. Community policing is important because after a crime is committed people have to feel comfortable with the officers, that they know these people,” said May. “In Escambia County and Pensacola, we have been reactionary, instead of proactive. After the fact is too late.”
Commissioner May said that while the black community should hold law enforcement accountable, but they also have a responsibility to hold themselves accountable.
“If I live in a neighborhood, grow up in a neighborhood and I’m afraid to walk in my own neighborhood then that’s a problem,” said the commissioner. “We can’t expect anyone to come into our neighborhood to solve a problem that we know is there.”
May ended with a plea that the entire community must agree to work together. “Because if it happens today in my neighborhood it could happen in yours tomorrow. We all need to come together and solve this problem.”
Rodney Jones, pastor of New World Believer’s Ministries and director of Transitions and Outreach for Pathways for Change, thanked Sheriff Morgan for allowing him to be a part of the public service campaign and echoed the sentiments of the previous speakers, particularly Commissioner May.
“We’ve got to do something,” said Jones, “Because if you don’t do it, who’s going to do it?”
He urged the politicians and the community to encourage young African-Americans.
“We need to give our young people hope. That’s what’s wrong with our young people, they seem to have lost hope,” he said. “We’ve got to give our young people a new way of thinking.”
Jones added, “If not, they might kick in your front door. They might wait on you when you get out of your car. They might end up shooting your son. You’ve got to sleep with them. It’s you that has got to do something.”
Sheriff Morgan summarized the meeting with a call to action. He asked the ministers in the audience to raise their hands and told them he planned to lean heavily on them for help.
“We’ve got the stats, the figures and the programs to get us out of this problem, but you are the key ingredient,” said Morgan. “And for godsakes, get on the phone and call us.”