A triple homicide this week in Jacksonville, along with the arrest of four teenagers, has helped to shed light on the growing problem of youth crime in the city.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Three lives were taken and four teenagers will face a judge for their alleged involvement in the shooting at a Northwest Jacksonville apartment complex.
In the wake of the killings, city leaders and retired law enforcement are speaking out on potential solutions to youth crime.
“It’s shocking and appalling,” said Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office Director of Investigations Mike Bruno. “You’ve got, kids, 14, 17, 18 years old out committing crimes like this.”
In a press conference Wednesday, Bruno announced the arrest of three juveniles and one legal-age teen: a 14-year-old girl, two 17-year-old boys, and 18-year-old Keon Lester.
All four will face charges, including second-degree murder and conspiracy to commit robbery, stemming from the shooting at the Calloway Cove apartment complex off Moncrief Road.
“It’s a neighborhood we’ve tried to wrap some services around, but we need to do so much more,” said Jacksonville City Councilwoman Brenda Priestly Jackson, who represents the district. “I think the hardest part for me is the information that’s been reported about the age of the [suspects].”
Priestly Jackson, who lives not far from the complex, said she was shocked by the shooting. The 14-year-old girl arrested was driving the getaway car in the incident, police said Wednesday.
“You can’t even get a license at 14, not even a restricted license,” Jackson said.
Jacksonville youth being arrested for serious crimes, often through gang involvement, is not a new phenomenon.
Acknowledging current resources like the Kid’s Hope Alliance, Priestly Jackson said she is in support of a permanent, dedicated source of funding to provide resources for parents and youth like after school services, tutoring, intervention services and mental health programs.
“We need a dedicated funding source that’s equal to the funding that we may give to the Kid’s Hope Alliance and other entities, that outlives different administrations, political ideologies,” Jackson said. “The work of nurturing our community’s kids should not be political.”
It is important to recognize that parents in communities like Northwest Jacksonville may work several jobs or longer hours, keeping them from always being able to supervise or intervene, Jackson added.
“We need to make certain that we are able to intervene on their behalf, not to move parents out of the way,” she said. “Provide parents and guardians the support first.”
Meanwhile, retired law enforcement familiar with communities like Calloway Cove and Eureka Gardens say youth committing or being arrested for serious crimes like robbery or murder is a preventable reality.
Kim Varner, a retired JSO detective who worked 26 years at the agency, used to walk Calloway Cove (at the time Washington Heights) as part of a multi-crime unit task force.
“It doesn’t shock me that it took place here, but it doesn’t shock me that it takes place anywhere in Jacksonville,” Varner said.
Before and after retiring from JSO, Varner has been deeply involved in working with youth in communities with socio-economic disadvantages.
“I still walk the streets now, telling people to put down the guns. I’ll do it two or three times a week if I can,” Varner explained. “I had a kid pull a gun on me the other day, he wasn’t even 20 years old, you know? It doesn’t surprise me.”
Varner said when he and his team would walk these communities, they would make it a point to have face-to-face interaction with youth of all ages. He said he believes the solution to youth involvement with crime starts with community policing.
“We’ve got to build that trust between police and community,” Varner said. “It probably sounds crazy to some officers who look at me and say, ‘Man, I’m not ‘finna go talk to a bunch of thugs or whatever.’ You don’t look at it like that, these are human beings.”
“You know if you try and go talk to people, form a relationship with them, that curbs a lot of the crime right there. Some love and building relationships, that would make a difference.”
It will be up to the State’s Attorney’s Office to determine whether the three minors, who First Coast News is not identifying because they are currently charged as juveniles, will be tried as adults.