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After Tampa shootings, police and community leaders search for answers

Gun violence is spiking this year. The latest shooting in Southeast Seminole Heights killed two and wounded four. Officials are calling for calm, and police say they need help making arrests.

TAMPA — Dianne Hart woke Friday morning with a foggy mind and no more answers than she’d had when she’d finally gotten to bed around 1 a.m.

Hours earlier, there had been a shooting in Southeast Seminole Heights, a part of the Tampa district that Hart grew up in and represents in the Florida House of Representatives. Someone on Thursday night opened fire in front of a home where young men often gathered to play dominoes under a tent. Tampa police said two men were killed and four more were wounded. No arrests have been made.

Hart lives not far from the shooting, and as soon as she heard about it she said she called her fellow elected officials. “Listen, at this point, we can’t sit silent,” she said. In an impromptu virtual news conference that night, they pleaded for calm, asked parents to keep their children at home and beseeched anyone with information about the shooting to come forward.

This week marked a bad turn in an already bad year for violence in Tampa. On Tuesday night, a shooting at a basketball court near Nuccio Park killed a 36-year-old man and injured seven others, one of whom is still in critical condition, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office. In a video posted to Twitter purporting to show the shooting, more than 20 gunshots can be heard. It’s a 10-minute drive from the site of Thursday’s shooting.

Related: Two killed, four wounded in Tampa shooting; officials call for calm

After the virtual news conference, Hart said, she heard from many people, including other local officials, who hadn’t known about the spiking violence. So they got the word out. But those in the community who have to live with the violence were also looking to her for answers she doesn’t have.

“Many of these young folks see no hope,” Hart said. “And there’s a war going on between different parts of our community. They’re asking me, ‘How are you going to handle it?’ I don’t know.”

The shootings were personal to her, too. She said the man killed in the Nuccio Park shooting was a relative. A man who worked for her ex-husband died in another recent shooting. And on Oct. 20, a shooting on N 32nd Street killed a woman Hart identified as Sylvia Hart (no relation), a friend for 30 years. The legislator says she feels their deaths as a lifelong member of this community — not as a politician.

“I’m just Dianne Hart,” she said, “living through some nightmares in my very own community.”

Tampa police Chief Brian Dugan talks to the media at a Friday news conference to address the spike in gun-related violence in Tampa.
Tampa police Chief Brian Dugan talks to the media at a Friday news conference to address the spike in gun-related violence in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

The city has seen 40 murders so far in 2020, 15 more than it had this time last year, Tampa police Chief Brian Dugan said during his own Friday afternoon news conference to address the violence. Gun violence led to 31 of those deaths, he said.

The agency has tallied 900 total crimes involving guns this year, he said, double where that number stood this time last year. And those numbers don’t include shootings like Tuesday’s incident, which fell under the jurisdiction of the Sheriff’s Office.

Dugan said his investigators need the community’s help to solve these crimes. “We need the people in our neighborhoods to tell us what’s going on,” he said.

Hart and Tampa City Council member Orlando Gudes, a former city police officer, said there are myriad factors underlying the violence and the difficulty police have had solving some of these cases. They pointed to structural ills: a lack of economic opportunity and affordable housing; the school-to-prison pipeline; mental illness; economically successful community members moving to more stable neighborhoods; and the pressures of gentrification felt by those left behind. The pandemic has also taken a toll on the community’s economic, mental and physical health.

None of those issues excuse the decision to pick up a gun and shoot it, both officials said. Gudes said he finds it particularly scary that the recent shootings have taken place at social gatherings, where bystanders could be wounded by bullets meant for someone else.

“It’s targeted, I believe,” Gudes said, “but it’s also like, ‘I don’t give a damn.’”

While police ask for the public’s help solving these shootings, Gudes worries the people who have that information won’t come forward. He thinks they fear retaliation. Distrust of police — or the fear that calling them could make the situation worse — could also play a role.

“There are ways and avenues to get info to law enforcement, (or) to myself, without being involved,” he said. “We’ve just got to get some help.”

Patricia Brown, whose 27-year-old son Devanté was fatally shot in March, was the only relative of the victims of the recent shootings in Tampa to address the media alongside Police Chief Brian Dugan at a Friday news conference.
Patricia Brown, whose 27-year-old son Devanté was fatally shot in March, was the only relative of the victims of the recent shootings in Tampa to address the media alongside Police Chief Brian Dugan at a Friday news conference. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Dugan said he asked family members of several shooting victims to speak alongside him Friday in front of the media, but most were too afraid to do so. Only Patricia Brown, whose 27-year-old son Devanté was fatally shot in March, agreed.

“Please stop, stop, stop,” Brown said. “It’s causing too much heartache for everybody. I have to deal with this every day, losing my child over something senseless.”

Dugan called the recent shootings “neighborhood beefs” — it could be warring gangs, or neighborhood groups, or loosely organized groups that are attacking and retaliating against each other.

In Southeast Seminole Heights, the mood was somber Friday. Glass littered the driveway where the shooting took place. Bullet holes could be seen on a nearby car. Neighbors stood outside, talking in grim tones. Many were willing to speak to a Tampa Bay Times reporter but did not want their names to be used.

The violence was overwhelming, they said. One woman told a reporter he might want to leave — she’d just heard about another shooting in nearby Robles Park. A Tampa police spokeswoman said officers investigated a report of gunshots there, but no injuries were reported.

Bullet holes are scene on nearby vehicles and houses after a Thursday night shooting killed two and wounded four on E Palifox Street in Southeast Seminole Heights.
Bullet holes are scene on nearby vehicles and houses after a Thursday night shooting killed two and wounded four on E Palifox Street in Southeast Seminole Heights. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Dianne Hart was thinking about how to get more people to care about the communities suffering from violence. She was trying to organize a news conference with victims' families, and trying to decide what to say on her Saturday morning radio show. She thought about her old friend Sylvia Hart, who would come into Dianne Hart’s beauty salon as a customer, then stay until it closed to help clean up, “because she knew I was underwater.” She could close her eyes and see Sylvia’s big smile plain as day.

Hart wants the community members who found success and moved away to come back. She wants to see older men who survived previous spikes in violence walking the streets and talking to young men, maybe helping them find a job or at least teaching them that the shootings weren’t worth it.

She didn’t know if any of that would work.

“But I cannot not try,” she said.

• • •

If you have information

Anyone with information about Tuesday’s shooting is asked to call the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office at 813-247-8200. Anyone with information about Thursday’s shooting is asked to call the Tampa Police Department at 813-231-6130.

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