The Sarasota City Commission unanimously agreed at an informal workshop Monday that if the number of homicides in North Sarasota continues to increase, the crime is going to inch closer to downtown Sarasota.
A tense debate between District 1 Commissioner Willie Shaw and the rest of the commissioners ensued when the commission began to discuss the goals for the city over the next two years.
Shaw told the commission he had only one major goal to discuss at the meeting.
Noting that crime currently falls under the city’s “quality of life goal,” Shaw said something more needs to be done to reduce the amount of crime and the number of homicides in Sarasota.
“The violence taking place in North Sarasota is unbelievable,” Shaw said. “I would like support for us to label this a major concern and to dig deeper to figure out how to fix it.”
Shaw’s comments came just 24 hours after three people were injured in Newtown early Sunday morning after rounds of ammunition were fired into a Newtown neighborhood.
The string of violence has increased as of late in the area, with gunfire also killing a young mother over the Thanksgiving weekend.
“This isn’t a District 1 issue anymore, and it never was,” Shaw said. “This is a Sarasota issue.”
The rest of the commission agreed.
“My sense of urgency is off the charts right now,” said Commissioner Paul Caragiulo. “This problem is within our city, it’s our problem, and I’m not OK with it.”
Mayor Suzanne Atwell said “the elephant in the room” of the crime problem is “a public relations nightmare for the city.”
The comment upset and frustrated Shaw, even though Atwell was trying to finish her comment by explaining the city can’t worry about the image of the city any longer when it comes to fixing its crime problem.
“We can’t continue to talk about how this affects the city’s PR,” Shaw said. “I want to see a result that stops me from holding funerals and children and mothers being shot.”
Shaw also asked commissioners to consider what would happen if the violence is ignored.
“We won’t have a Sarasota image at all to worry about anymore if they start shooting downtown,” Shaw said. “It stinks, and it smells real bad right now.”
“This wouldn’t be tolerated in any other neighborhood in this city,” Caragiulo said.
City Manager Bob Bartolotta promised the commission the city is working to fix the problem and said the problem can’t be fixed by increasing the police presence in Newtown.
“This is not just a police issue, it’s a community issue that everyone needs to buy into,” Bartolotta said. “We have doubled police presence in Newtown since I got here, and it hasn’t gotten us anywhere.”
Bartolotta and the Sarasota Police Department are investigating a long-term solution that involves the entire community, including local ministers and community outreach programs.
Shaw discovered the program called “Operation Ceasefire,” which involves the assistance of criminologist David Kennedy, who has devoted his career to reducing gang and drug-related inner-city violence.
Kennedy’s homicide-reduction program brings gang members into meetings with community members they respect, social services representatives who could help them and police officers who want gang members to stay alive and not to be arrested.
Kennedy’s program has worked to reduce homicide rates in Boston as much as 66%. The program, now dubbed “The Boston Miracle,” has been implemented in more than 70 cities nationwide.
“We have to start with community action, and people must realize this affects the entire city,” Bartolotta said. “It appears to be effective.”
Shaw has high hopes for the program.
“The dynamics of violence we have here is broader than just putting people in jail,” Shaw said.
Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown, meanwhile, said city staff would work on giving the violence issue a other than a “goal for the city.”
Also at the meeting, commissioners presented a variety of goals to Bartolotta, who will present a list of approximately 40 goals to review and have commissioners review and approve in January.