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2 shot dead on day of Tampa gun violence forum: ‘We’re killing each other’

A top-ranking Black officer acknowledges fear of retaliation, but replies, “It’s going to take your phone call. It’s gonna take your tips to reduce the shootings.”
Interim Tampa Police Chief Ruben "Butch" Delgado and Patricia Brown embrace during a community forum on gun violence Tuesday night. Brown, whose son Devanté was fatally shot in March 2020, was a featured speaker.
Interim Tampa Police Chief Ruben "Butch" Delgado and Patricia Brown embrace during a community forum on gun violence Tuesday night. Brown, whose son Devanté was fatally shot in March 2020, was a featured speaker. [ LAUREN PEACE | Times ]
Published Dec. 29, 2021
Updated Dec. 29, 2021

A mother caught in gunfire while walking home with her 12-year-old son. A teacher whose students struggle to stay awake in class because shootings keep them up at night. A teenager who watched her sister die after both girls were shot just weeks before Christmas.

One by one, the stories of Tampa people devastated by gun violence reverberated through the Jackson Heights YET Center gym during a community forum Tuesday night attended by more than 50 people and organized by the Tampa Police Department.

The forum, led by interim Police Chief Ruben “Butch” Delgado, comes as Tampa faces an uptick in shootings and homicides. As of Dec. 7, 214 people had been shot in 2021, 45 of them homicides, police data shows. That compares to 37 homicides at the same time last year.

Two more people were shot to death in Tampa in the hours before the Tuesday forum, one of them just 2 miles from the Jackson Heights center. Both victims were male, 16 and 18. Homicides for the year now total 48.

The forum was the first of a series of community conversations police will host across the city bringing the community and law enforcement together to address the scourge.

“I’ll do these in every community until we don’t have to do them anymore,” Delgado said.

Gun violence has touched the lives of some of the people who attended a community forum Tuesday night organized by the Tampa Police Department.
Gun violence has touched the lives of some of the people who attended a community forum Tuesday night organized by the Tampa Police Department. [ LAUREN PEACE | Times ]

The chief announced a number of steps the department will take in the new year, including the formation of a commission to find ways of reducing gun violence and adding five bicycle patrol officers to the Police Department’s East Tampa district to engage more with the community.

In addition, the department will implement “Adopt-a-Block” programs like those in St. Petersburg to foster trash cleanup, community gardens and other services as an investment in neighborhood health. And the department will continue its Safety Awareness for Everyone program, bringing together neighborhood watch programs and featuring an online dashboard to track police activity and provide tips.

Still, at the heart of the Police Department’s message Tuesday was a call for community members and law enforcement to work together.

“How are we going to reduce crime and reduce the prison population? You’re the key to it,” said Maj. Calvin Johnson, speaking to a gym where nearly every socially distanced chair was taken.

Johnson, who commands the district that includes East Tampa and the Jackson Heights YET Center, said 700 of the 1,800 guns the department has taken off the street this year have come from his district — more than its share of the city’s three police districts.

He said the fight to stop gun violence needs to start at home.

During a forum in East Tampa on Tuesday night, Maj. Calvin Johnson urges community members to work with police in stopping gun violence.
During a forum in East Tampa on Tuesday night, Maj. Calvin Johnson urges community members to work with police in stopping gun violence. [ LAUREN PEACE | Times ]
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“We need your help talking to the young adults and the youth,” said Johnson, one of the Police Department’s highest-ranking Black officers, “letting them know it’s not about the short-term game, letting them know that there is life after they’re 25 years old.”

By the time police are involved, it’s often too late to help, he said. Preventive measures should start with messaging from teachers, pastors, older family members and peers.

But when violence does break out, the department needs people to step up and report information to law enforcement, he said.

“I can see eight people in here right now who I know would call me at the drop of a dime,” Johnson said. “The bad news is that the other 40, you’re not calling.”

In response, some people in the audience said they would face retaliation for reporting information to police. One woman said she once called to report her neighbors after hearing gunfire, hoping to remain anonymous, only to have officers appear at her door for everyone to see.

Now, she said, if she has something to report, she quietly approaches patrol officers outside her local grocery store.

Johnson acknowledged concerns about retaliation but doubled down on his message.

“There’s only 1,000 cops in the city of Tampa. Over 400,000 residents live here,” he said. “It’s going to take your phone call. It’s gonna take your tips to reduce the shootings.”

Other themes were reiterated as people took the microphone over the course of the hour-plus forum. One was the need for investment in social services.

“When I was young, I grew up in a violent environment in South Florida,” said 29-year-old Ivan Rivera. “It was counseling that helped me. Social services changed my life.”

Improved social services might not show an immediate payoff but will bring long-term benefits in a way that simply targeting gun violence will not, Rivera said.

Improved social services such as youth programming, health care, housing and job training require a commitment of more money, some speakers said. They urged the Police Department and city officials to collect the data that might help land state and federal grants.

But above all Tuesday, from expressions of anger, heartbreak and fear, a sense of urgency emerged. For so many in attendance, the violence is personal.

Signs carry the message outside a community forum on reducing gun violence, held Tuesday night in East Tampa.
Signs carry the message outside a community forum on reducing gun violence, held Tuesday night in East Tampa. [ LAUREN PEACE | Times ]

Asked who had lost someone to gun violence, more than a dozen people in the crowd raised their hands. Some wore T-shirts with the face of a loved one. Others held up signs.

One of the hands belonged to Patricia Brown.

Co-founder of Rise Up For Peace, a nonprofit working to reduce gun violence in Tampa, Brown started the organization after her 27-year-old son, Devantè, was fatally shot last year when he was caught in gunfire while walking near the apartment complex where he lived.

Brown helped organize the Tuesday forum, and as she spoke, she fought back tears.

“I’m begging and I’m pleading with you,” she said. “We’re afraid to walk out of our doors, we don’t know what’s going to happen. We got to do something about this. We’re killing each other.”