Killers with guns, go hide

Law enforcement officers join City Commissioner Willie Shaw (second from left) for the presentation at the Taylor Complex. Photo by Stan Zimmerman

Violent criminals, beware. The Sarasota Police Department is about to corral 10 of you to serve as an example to others. It’s part of a new anti-crime strategy unveiled Thursday evening, June 14, at the Robert Taylor Community Complex in north Sarasota.

Shocked by local homicides and other violent acts, Sarasota Vice Mayor Willie Shaw took a crew of local professionals to High Point, N.C., last week to learn how that community slashed its crime rate with a multi-step program pioneered by criminologist Daniel Bruce Kennedy. They returned to brief Sarasota residents during a community meeting.

However, the meeting was upstaged by another homicide. While the officials and professionals were away in North Carolina, two Sarasota County deputies shot and killed Rodney Mitchell, 23, during a routine traffic stop in Newtown.

Last Monday, June 11, Mitchell and a friend were stopped in Newtown by Deputy Adam Shaw (no relation to the vice mayor). Soon after, Deputy Sgt. Troy Sasse arrived to back up Shaw. A Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office report says Mitchell began to drive his vehicle at the deputies, and they both fired into the Jeep. The vehicle crashed a block away at a convenience store on the southeast corner of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Washington Boulevard.

The passenger in the Jeep fled. Mitchell was pronounced dead at the scene. Mitchell, who lived in Bradenton, was a standout athlete at Palmetto High School; he graduated last year with a degree in education from Eastern New Mexico University, according to a Sarasota Herald Tribune story by Erica Newport.

The shooting left a pall over the roughly 200 people at Vice Mayor Shaw’s community meeting. In the back of the room, there were protest signs, and more were visible along Washington Boulevard, where the tragedy began.

“They want us to change our behavior,” Newtown community leader Valarie Buchand told The Sarasota News Leader. “But [law enforcement officers] don’t want to change theirs.”

The vice mayor said the shooting was under investigation; therefore, he did not allow people to speak of it during the anti-violence meeting.

The new strategy

It’s common sense, and cops repeat it often: Five percent of the population causes 95% of the problems. The High Point strategy is simple: Round up the usual violent suspects and throw them in the slammer. Tell them they’re not going home for decades.

Step Two: Police pursue dope deals and other criminal conspiracies with the second tier of bad guys. The officers roll video, wear wires and nail the evidence on this tier of criminals, the not-yet-smart ones. Then those criminals are busted and herded into a room.

“There’ll be 50 chairs, and 10 of them have a picture with the guys you’ve already busted, the guys who are going to prison,” said Sarasota Police Lt. Randy Boyd. “And you tell them they have a second chance.”

This is the essence of the High Point experience: Remove the worst, and tell the rest, “Change or go to prison. Take your choice.”

“If you stay clean, we can help you,” said Boyd. “We can help you get a GED [high school equivalence degree], help you get a job. Turn your life around.”

The strategy breaks the cycle of crime in two ways. It takes the local “gurus of crime” out of the picture, and it gives the novice criminals a real choice – keep it up and do hard time, or change your life.

In High Point, N.C., the change was dramatic: 80 homicides per year dialed back to a few domestic killings. No drive-bys, no gangland shootings. Suddenly, kids could play in their front yards again; people could sit in rockers on their front porches without fear of gunfire, Shaw told the audience. “It’s an awesome strategy,” he said. “But it is not an overnight process.”

Churches called the key

North Sarasota has 64 churches.

Dedra Anderson, a parole officer, went on the trip to High Point. “Things have to happen at the church first,” she said. “If every pastor got their congregation to come together, and the pastors came together, we can make this work.”

A statement came from the audience: “You need a grass-roots movement to get these churches together.”

The Rev. Kevin Lumpkin, also fresh from the trip to High Point, said, “On Sept. 16, we are going to have a Newtown day of prayer at Booker High School.”

“Our ministers must set aside their differences,” said Shaw. “Our community needs to be as one.”

Also on the agenda are future workshops to help further the strategy. Times and dates will be released later. Meanwhile, the Sheriff’s Office is investigating the Mitchell shooting; Deputies Shaw and Sasse are on paid administrative leave.