TAMPA — The city of Tampa has seen a 36 percent rise in violent crimes involving guns in the first five months of this year compared with the same period in 2019. Violent crime overall has surged by 10 percent. And there have been 15 homicides in the city so far, compared with 12 in the first five months of last year.
The numbers, released Wednesday by the Tampa Police Department, offer a glimpse at an alarming surge in violent crime that has come amid widespread community shutdowns due to the coronavirus pandemic.
What’s driving the rise? The answer is complicated, and not every case is the same. But in a Zoom news conference Wednesday, one word stood out: gangs.
“We have a gang violence problem in Tampa and Hillsborough County,” County Commissioner Les Miller said in the virtual meeting, organized by Tampa City Councilman Orlando Gudes. “I don’t care what law enforcement says. Those are gangs. We have to face the fact that there are gangs out there.”
In Wednesday’s news conference, Gudes read off a list of recent shootings and the neighborhoods where they happened.
On Sunday, there was a shooting in the Highland Pines neighborhood of Tampa. On Monday, there was another at 50th Street and Sligh Avenue. On Tuesday, it happened again at E Palifox and 26th streets.
Each incident occurred in heavily populated areas near homes and businesses, Gudes said. Some occurred in the midst of what were described as large gatherings.
The violence appeared to tick upward in March as the shutdowns took hold. In a news conference that month, Police Chief Brian Dugan stopped short of calling the shootings gang-related. He referred to them as “neighborhood beefs.”
Many victims have been young black men. In March, 18-year-old Talance Callins was shot as he drove along an East Tampa street en route to pick up a relative. Police have yet to announce an arrest. The next day, 27-year-old Devante’ Brown was fatally shot in the Tampa Park apartments. Police have not named a suspect in that case either.
More recently, the violence touched downtown Tampa. A fight that police said involved more than 100 people broke out late on the night of May 16 in Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park. It dissipated, but a few hours later police returned after a report that a person had been shot. They found 18-year-old Antonio “Jay Jay” McGuire. Jr. lying wounded near the Tampa Museum of Art.
Police later said that they had identified the person who shot McGuire, and that it was believed they had recovered the gun used to kill him. But no suspect has been named and no murder charges have followed.
McGuire had gotten out of jail about 12 days before he died after he was accused of participating in a drive-by shooting in April along an East Tampa street. Police said there is no indication that his death was related to the prior shooting.
“We cannot be careless and say that it’s an East Tampa problem,” said State Rep. Dianne Hart. “It affects all of us.”
What can be done to stop it? At least seven elected leaders attended Wednesday’s meeting, along with several citizens.
They spoke of more community programs and economic resources for young people. Most immediately, though, was the issue of guns.
“Parents, look under children’s beds,” said Hart. “Know what’s in your house ... If you find a gun, you don’t have to turn it in. Hand it over to an elected official. It will be turned in with no questions.”
Gudes mentioned the possibility of gun buyback programs. He also called on citizens to help prevent future crimes by calling police if they see large gatherings in their neighborhoods. Such gatherings are a violation of a statewide order from Gov. Ron DeSantis, meant to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
State Rep. Wengay Newton also touched on a familiar theme: the need for people to say what they know.
“We need information,” he said. “People know what happened.”