shirley_gibson_053112_web.jpgMIAMI GARDENS — When former Miami Gardens Mayor Shirley Gibson asked three young African-American men walking down the middle of the street in her neighborhood carrying open containers of alcoholic beverages whether they would do the same thing in Pembroke Pines or Miramar, one of them replied, “No, because they don’t play that up there.”

Gibson, who led the effort to make Miami Gardens a city in 2003 and became its first mayor, was among some 60 people who attended a forum at New Way Baptist Church on Feb. 27 on “The Culture of Gun Violence in South Florida: the Public Safety, Social and Business Challenges.”

She told the gathering that, contrary to what the three young men told her, Miami Gardens has a significant number of college educated residents and an average income of $43,000 and the city should have the same standards as other cities.

The forum, hosted by the Miami Dade Branch of the NAACP, included a panel comprising Dr. Santarvis Brown, director of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, Department of Education; Cathy Burgos, division director of Operations, Miami Dade Juvenile Services Department; James Hannon,

personal injury attorney, Hannon & Boyers, P.A.; Adora Obi Nweze, president, Florida State Conference of Branches of the NAACP and of the Miami-Dade branch; Joanna Matthews Pace, co-advisor, Youth Council, Miami Dade Branch of the NAACP; and Robert Parker, former Director, Miami-Dade County Police Department. André Williams, former Miami Gardens city councilman and a real estate attorney, moderated the session.

Gibson said that her personal approach of interacting with people who appear to be engaged in inappropriate behavior is one that should be widespread throughout the city. While the issue of violent crime in the predominantly black city can’t be sugarcoated, she said, “There are more good people in this city than bad. You can’t be afraid of the few people who give your city a bad name.”

Hannon said the city’s crime rates give just cause for residents to be afraid, with 3,869 crimes reported between Jan. 1 and Nov. 27, 2013. The criminal acts, he said, included were 22 murders, 523 cases of aggravated assault and aggravated battery and 922 instances of residential burglaries.

Hannon’s presentation focused on preventative measures such as adequate lighting surrounding homes and businesses to deter criminals. Brown expressed deep dismay with the rampant crime and encouraged an “all hands on deck” approach to deal with the violence.

“We are at a very important point in our existence as a people,” Brown said. “We recognize that something is tremendously wrong with the excessive gun violence.”

Burgos said that intervening with children after they’ve committed minor offenses can prevent their involvement in more dangerous crime and that it is cost-effective. The Miami Dade’s Juvenile Services division, she said, offers a holistic approach that works with the teens as well as the families of teen offenders with “research-based tools.” Getting to the root of a family’s issues and providing services is often instrumental in forestalling a teen’s deeper, more serious involvement with the juvenile justice system, she said.

In addition to partnering with 37 law enforcement agencies throughout Miami-Dade, including the Miami Gardens Police Department, Burgos said, recognizing that teens’ criminal activity “didn’t happen overnight” serves as the foundation for her department’s work. She said that work has resulted in a 72 percent drop in the juvenile arrest rate over the past 15 years.

Meanwhile, the violence continues in Miami. The day before the forum, three young girls were shot in Liberty City in what police suspect was a retaliatory shooting by a 17-year old girl with whom one of the victims was feuding. The suspect had not yet been identified or apprehended in the shooting. The youngest of the three victims was 10-years old. 

And on Monday, a toddler spent his second birthday recovering after his head was grazed by a bullet a day earlier. Shots were fired as the sleeping child’s grandfather held him outside his home at Northwest 75th Street and Eighth Avenue.