Police vehicles

Our Children Need Their Village

This information is 1 month old and may no longer be accurate.

Op-ed by Chief Lee Bercaw

Receiving a call regarding multiple shooting victims is a situation no police chief wants to face, whether it occurs in the early hours of a Sunday morning on Halloween weekend or during a busy Tuesday afternoon. Since being sworn in as your chief last summer I have unfortunately had to respond to such calls.

In both instances, the shootings were connected to gun crimes involving juveniles. These incidents not only put innocent lives at risk but mirror a troubling national trend that has kept me awake at night. While our investigators acted swiftly to make arrests in both cases, this provides little consolation to those who have been physically and emotionally affected, both directly and indirectly.

However, gun violence involving our youth is an issue that extends beyond these incidents. Just this month, a 14-year-old was tragically found shot to death in our community. The repercussions of such incidents are profound, affecting not only the immediate families but also our broader Tampa community. It is imperative that our children feel safe and empowered to pursue their aspirations without fear.

Each time a tragedy like this happens, a crucial question remains: how can we prevent guns from ending up in the hands of juveniles? Our community has participated in discussions about intervention and the creation of more positive and safe environments for our youth. The Tampa Police Department has taken proactive steps to engage teens specifically by enhancing our Police Athletic League (PAL) through our “Stay & Play” program, Resources in Community Hope (RICH) House program, the TPD Youth Academy, the TPD Police Explorer program, Shielding Our Teens, and the Chief’s Youth Advisory Council. These efforts have shown to have a positive impact on our community, but we must do more to achieve more.

Recognizing the prevalence of gun violence, particularly among young individuals from marginalized communities, city leaders have acknowledged the need to take steps toward solutions. Over two years ago, the City of Tampa applied for and was awarded a $1.5 million Community Violence Intervention and Prevention Grant to help implement and expand programs around violence intervention. Currently, in the implementation stage of the process, this money will directly support the efforts of groups that provide peer support, educational assistance, and vocational services to our youth.

I am dedicated to continuing these efforts, recognizing that our partnership with the community is crucial for success. Recently, I attended a pastoral installation where the pastor highlighted the impact of influential figures during his youth. We all have memories of a teacher, religious leader, neighbor, or mentor who played a role in shaping our lives. The proverb, "It takes a village to raise a child," remains as relevant today as it was in the past.

To effectively address the challenges that young people are currently facing, there must be collaboration among law enforcement, parents, community organizations, educators, clergy, and mentors. By working together to identify and tackle the root causes of these issues, and by providing the necessary support and guidance to our youth, we can steer them away from violence and towards a path of success. It is only through a united effort that we can truly make a positive impact on the lives of our young people and help them build a brighter future.

I urge our community to unite in addressing the issue of gun violence among our youth. This includes a focus on preventing these incidents from happening. I want to highlight department initiatives such as our PROJECT: Locked & Unloaded program, which provides free gun locks to responsible gun owners. In 2023, Tampa Police recovered almost 2,000 guns from the street. In the same year, 79% of all auto burglaries were to vehicles that were left unlocked. From those unlocked vehicles, 197 guns were stolen.

In addition to responsible gun ownership, we need to prioritize the teaching of conflict resolution strategies and establish additional positive outlets for our children, so that we can and will be safer, together.

As your police chief, I am committed to doing everything in my power and using all available resources to avoid receiving another call and preventing any more families in our community from experiencing the loss, the grief, and questions of why this happened. While recent attention has been focused on two major incidents, any shooting in our community is unacceptable.