Pensacola, Florida
Sunday July 22nd 2018

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Outtakes—The Role of Newspapers

By Rick Outzen

Newspapers have a responsibility to be more than cheerleaders. Everyone likes positive stories, and few like to have problems exposed. However, it’s our role to shed light.

In November 2016, Police Chief David Alexander told the Pensacola City Council that little could be done about the rise of homicides. Over the first 10 months of 2016, the city had seven murders, which tied the 2012 total that earned the city the moniker as one of the most dangerous small cities in the nation.

The previous month, I had reported on the sharp rise in homicides—five since the end of June. While the increase was alarming to us, few others covered the problem. Chief Alexander dismissed the statistic and downplayed what his department could do about it.

“I have to say with the violent crimes we really don’t have, other than having an officer placed in everyone’s home, there’s not a whole lot of things you can do to really control and mitigate issues like homicides,” Chief Alexander said during his monthly report.

I wasn’t willing to let Alexander off the hook. We were concerned the city was on pace to have the most homicides since 1993, when it had 10 murders. We challenged the police chief about his statement and pointed out how differently PPD reacted to homicides in 2012 under Chief Chip Simmons.

Back then, Chief Simmons, Mayor Ashton Hayward and Lumon May held a joint press conference to announce measures to combat the rise of gun violence after the city experienced three drive-by shootings in one weekend. Simmons committed to putting more officers on the streets.

Alexander’s response to the gun violence was baffling and disheartening. Citizens were worried about their safety, but their leaders didn’t appear willing to act.

However, Assistant Chief Tommi Lyter listened and developed a plan to step up police presence, similar to how Simmons had done four years earlier. In early December 2016, PPD announced it would saturate areas within city limits at various times to address the increase in gun violence.

“We’re doing this because we must remain vigilant in keeping our streets and neighborhoods safe for all of our citizens, especially during the holidays when everyone wants to be able to celebrate with family and friends,” said Chief Alexander in a press release.

Lyter became the police chief in May 2017. His effort to curb gun violence worked better than it did in 2012. In fact, the city had no homicides in 2017, which hadn’t happened since 1980.

When was the last homicide? October 2016 when we reported the rise of homicides.

Newspapers still play a vital role.