Is Manatee County, FL in grip of urban warfare? Surge in gunfire alarming

August 11, 2013 

The recent outbreak of shootings sounds alarm bells once again in the community about the critical need for a stronger and coordinated response to combat violence, gangs and drugs. Past efforts at stemming mayhem after high-profile homicides have fallen short.

Over the past two weeks, five shooting incidents brought the nightmare of violence to various neighborhoods, sparing no part of town.

A staggering string of violence

On July 27, passengers in two vehicles exchanged gunfire, and a 4-year-old at home with his mother when a stray bullet hit his head. While the boy is recovering, he might lose sight in one eye.

On Aug. 1, Brenton Coleman Sr. was gunned down while holding his 5-year-old on the grounds of the 13th Avenue Community Center after a youth football practice that had attracted hundreds of parents and children. Bradenton police describe this as an "execution-style killing" perpetrated by two men, who remain on the loose.

The victim's son and brother were arrested Aug. 7 after police stopped a stolen car for speeding and found two loaded assault rifles inside. The driver fled and ditched a 9mm handgun in a yard.

On Aug. 4, a sheriff's deputy witnessed two groups of gunmen firing upon one another in a convenience store parking lot in the 5100 block of14th Street West. One man sustained an arm wound, and the gunmen fled. Casings from high-powered rifles were found at the scene.

Just hours later that day, a vehicle passenger fired several rounds at a man standing outside his car with his baby inside in a Palmetto neighborhood.

On Aug. 5, four passengers in the bed of a pickup truck fired 16 rounds from high-powered rifles at a home in just two blocks from the community center. Nobody fell victim to the gunfire.

All of these cases seem torn from the pages of a Hollywood script -- frightening examples of criminals run amok and even urban warfare.

Outrage but few informants

Several hundred concerned citizens turned out for an Aug. 2 gathering at the community center to express outrage over a killing on the facility's "sacred ground."

Manatee County NAACP president Susie Copeland put the situation in proper perspective that night: "I believe in the saying, 'Evil prevails when good men do nothing.' Call me. Let me call police."

That's the crux of the problem -- silent witnesses who cling to the street maxim of "snitches get stitches." Plus, uncooperative victims refuse to identify suspects and press charges.

Law enforcement continues to implore residents to come forward with information but often remains frustrated by the lack of assistance.

The Manatee County Sheriff's Office, though, is set to receive additional resources with the commission voting to expand the department's budget by $1.2 million, enough for about a dozen new deputies. That will help in the struggle against violence.

Reaching at-risk youth

Manatee County has years of experience grappling with violence. The 2007 shooting death of 9-year-old Stacy Williams III, struck by a stray bullet during a gang dispute, galvanized the community and led to the adoption of Amer-I-Can in a handful of public schools.

The gang-diversion program trained at-risk youth in life-management skills, positive self-esteem and self-improvement. Parents praised the semester-long program for all the positive changes in their children. But the contract with the Amer-I-Can program expired in January. Some form of this curriculum should be maintained in classrooms.

While the many community forums, anti-violence rallies and church sermons are well intended, this is like preaching to the choir. Gang members and violent-prone offenders do not attend. They care nothing about society's wellbeing.

How can society break through to youth, especially those most at risk? A September 2009 Herald headline pinpointed the problem in three words: "No easy answers." That report covered a forum on what could be done to stop violence. The discussion between the five adult community leaders and some 30 teenagers there reflected the stubborn nature of the issue. Several teens remarked that they would not report weapons brought onto campus.

The youth also pointed to poor home situation. Bad, abusive and even nonexistent parenting or a home life where drugs are commonplace -- how can society break that down?

A new focus on prevention

There is some good news. A variety of community organizations offer programs that reach out to at-risk youth, with the Manatee Family YMCA, the Palmetto Youth Center and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Manatee County among them.

While past efforts have been splintered, Manatee County Neighborhood Services is expanding the scope of its juvenile justice task force to unite nonprofits, the school system, law enforcement and the courts. Previously, the task force focused on detention since the state required counties to pay a large portion of those costs.

Now, though, the courts found the formula unfair, and counties begin getting relief this year. In Manatee County that money came out of the Children's Services Dedicated Millage, a special tax approved by voters intended to serve neglected, abused, disadvantaged and at-risk children from birth through age 17.

Plus, Manatee County commissioners decided to slowly steer juvenile detention costs completely away from the children's millage. That will put additional resources into at-risk youth programs.

We're encouraged that the county is focusing more and more on at-risk youth. Today, there may be no easy answers to stemming violence other than law enforcement, but improving the lot of younger generations and choking off gang recruitment provides hope for the future.

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