Freddy Barton held a sugar-free Red Bull in one hand and a stack of small plastic mirrors in the other. He handed the mirrors to about 20 energetic kids — some as young as 12, others as old as 17 — seated at round tables in the Carey Family Boys & Girls Club in Brandon.
“Look at yourself, take your time,” Barton said. “Fix your hair and all that.”
Backpacks and lunch boxes hung from the wall, some decorated with Disney princesses or Marvel superheroes. Shelves of hula hoops, basketballs and board games lined the opposite side of the room.
Barton told the kids to put the mirrors down and close their eyes.
“This is how you see yourself now,” he said. “But imagine if you decided to pick up a gun and harm someone. You’d get sent away and the people who love you on the outside, they’re not going to see you anymore.”
The room fell quiet.
Barton, 44, is the executive director of Safe & Sound Hillsborough. Where the justice system tends to take a reactive approach to youth violence, his is a mission of prevention. He champions solutions that are as much about public health as public safety; ones that emphasize community well-being as a means to reduce violence. In a city that has seen alarming homicide numbers in recent years, his work is more urgent than ever.
On a recent July day, for the eighth time in three weeks, Barton was running a violence prevention workshop called Consequences of Choices.
Two men, Reginald President and Robert Scarborough, stood at the front of the room. They had spent a collective 73 years in prison for gun-related offenses and they were at the Boys & Girls Club to share their experiences.
“When I see you, I see myself,” President said. “There were bad choices I made, and the consequences were 35 years away from my family.”
Scarborough told of how as a teen, he was using and selling drugs. At 20, he was imprisoned for murder.
“I made a bad choice,” he said.
Barton told the kids to open their eyes and look at the men.
“All that time you’ve been away, you’ve robbed your loved ones of seeing you grow up,” Barton said. “The next time they see you, you’ll be as old as these gentlemen here.”
Safe & Sound
Safe & Sound Hillsborough began after the Sandy Hook shooting in Newton, Connecticut. In the summer of 2013, then-County Commissioner Kevin Beckner formed a think tank of elected officials, community leaders and law enforcement officers to discuss how to prevent a similar tragedy here.
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The Hillsborough County Violence Prevention Collaborative, renamed Safe & Sound Hillsborough in 2015, takes a holistic approach to quelling violence.
“We can’t arrest ourselves out of this problem,” Barton said. “It’ll never work. We want to treat violence as a public health crisis.”
Safe & Sound is designed to affect policy decisions. The organization’s leadership council consists of “all the button-pushing agencies in the county,” Barton said, including the Public Defender’s Office, the 13th Judicial Circuit, city police departments and the Board of County Commissioners.
As executive director, Barton serves as the liaison between these agencies and communities. “I go into neighborhoods and I ask them what they need,” Barton said, “and then I translate that to the elected officials so they can make funding decisions.”
Barton, who has lived in the Tampa area since 2004, has been volunteering and doing community work since he was a teen. He served as chief operating officer for the Corporation to Develop Communities of Tampa for six years before joining Safe & Sound in 2016.
“I’m passionate about this work and passionate about Safe & Sound because my number one job in my life is I’m a father to two young Black men,” Barton said.
Raising his teen sons reminds Barton how much work there is to be done, he said.
“When my son gets ready to get in his car and drive,” he said, “I still have to have a conversation about what I need him to do if he gets pulled over. Because you’ve got some stigma on you, and you haven’t done one thing wrong.”
What the data tells us
Violent crime among young people spikes in the summer, Barton said, as kids lose the structure and support of school and extracurricular activities.
In Tampa, homicides have been climbing. As of mid-July, the city had 34 homicides. And according to data from the Tampa Police Department, the number of homicides jumped from 41 in 2020 to 60 in 2021.
These numbers become more alarming when compared to historical data collected by the FBI: Tampa recorded 27 homicides in 2018 and 31 in 2019. That means there were more homicides in Tampa in 2021 than in the previous two years combined.
Data from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement shows juvenile arrests trending down in Hillsborough over the past two decades, but Barton is concerned by more recent statistics. Between January and June, for instance, 92 kids have been arrested on gun-related charges.
Barton views gun violence as his biggest challenge. But it’s not always easy to stay motivated, he said, while gun violence remains prevalent.
“It takes the wind out of my sail when I hear there’s another shooting in East Tampa or West Tampa or somewhere else,” Barton said. “It’s tough, and I got to be honest, it hurts.”
It’s important, Barton said, to keep an eye on long-term progress.
“I’ve stayed committed to one thing,” he said, “which is doing the best job that I can to stay true to the people who are most at risk: our kids.”
Every day at 3:30 a.m., a court docket arrives in Barton’s inbox from the Hillsborough County Juvenile Assessment Center. It contains a list of kids who were arrested the previous day. On a recent morning, there were nine names on the docket. The charges ranged from loitering to aggravated assault with a weapon.
Barton is up around 5 a.m. on a typical day, and after a quick workout he’s attending court hearings for the arrested kids by 9. He helped develop an evening reporting center designed to keep arrested juveniles from being placed in confinement.
This serves as an important stopgap in the juvenile justice system, he said, as there is no option of bail for these kids. When they get arrested, they could be confined for up to 21 days. Judges can allow arrested kids to report to the center to work with Barton instead of being detained.
After attending the day’s hearings, Barton usually heads to meetings at places like churches, youth clubs and schools. Then he’ll meet with the Sheriff’s Office or the Tampa police to discuss programs and events that Safe & Sound is working on.
Those who work with Barton say he is tireless, committed and effective.
“He resonates with the children so well,” said Hillsborough County Commissioner Gwen Myers, who serves on the Safe & Sound leadership council. “You can tell that the kids actually want to listen to him.”
Barton keeps a busy schedule. He’s the leader of Tampa’s My Brother’s Keeper National Initiative, a mentorship program for young men of color, and serves on the leadership board of the University of South Florida’s Center for Justice, Research & Policy. He’s also a member of the Hillsborough State Attorney’s Community Advisory Council and the chairperson of the Circuit 13 Detention Advisory Board.
He likes to imagine the positive chain reaction that would occur if he could reverse the course of a bullet. He pictures a bullet moving backward through a shattered pane of glass, then the glass becomes whole and solid again, he said.
The bullet keeps going backward and you see a young man with a cap and gown who’s able to graduate because he wasn’t killed by a gun. You see a mother holding her daughter, who’s able to put her to bed at night because she wasn’t hit by a stray bullet.
“You reverse that decision that caused that bullet to go off in the first place,” Barton said. “That bullet goes backwards, backwards, backwards, and goes back into a firearm. And you see it now, somewhere in the community. You see a hand that was about to pick it up now, move away and say, `I’m not going to do it.’”