LEE CO., Fla. — Since 2001, plans have been underway for an initiative to help reduce gun violence and other crimes in communities across the country.
It’s called Project Safe Neighborhoods. And this year, it’s making its way to Southwest Florida.
“It’s a really good opportunity for the City of Fort Myers and the police department to engage with these justice system partners and the community, to actually combat what’s going on in the community- the crime and violence that may occur,” says Dr. Sandra Pavelka with Florida Gulf Coast University.
Dr. Sandra Pavelka is a professor of political science at Florida Gulf Coast University. She also plays an important role in the initiative, serving on its advisory board.
“The Project Safe Neighborhoods Advisory Board is actually going to review the community engagement initiatives that the chief has been implementing and provide counsel and advice to the chief in terms of what to do better, what to do more of- more and better- and some other objective feedback to him,” says Pavelka.
“The whole idea is for them to work with me and find additional ways to strengthen the community relationships, especially in the areas of restorative justice, legitimacy, and how we can better build trust between the police department and the community,” says Chief Derrick Diggs with the Fort Myers Police Department.
Chief Diggs has been overseeing FMPD when he took over in August 2016. Since that time, one of Diggs’ primary goals for the department was reducing crime throughout the city.
“The reason that we are starting this and got involved in this in 2021 is we’ve been reducing crime in the city for five straight years and have been very successful at it,” he says. “But we also know that more work needs to be done as far as building relationships in the community and removing those obstacles.”
During Diggs’ tenure as chief, the city has seen a notable decrease in crime. According to a recent report from FMPD, Fort Myers has seen a 50.6% reduction in violent crime from 2016 through 2020. Part of that reduction is thanks to partnerships within the community. Something that Project Safe Neighborhoods looks to build upon.
“We’ve brought in justice system partners, law enforcement officials with the Fort Myers Police Department, and community members really to combat the violent crime and other crime efforts within the city,” said Pavelka.
Through Project Safe Neighborhoods communities have received funding through federal dollars. Here in Southwest Florida, more than $350,000 has been allocated to help provide assistance in support of training and community outreach. But getting members of the public on board is another thing.
“We just need people to care. We need people to get mad that these crimes are happening in our community and they’re going unsolved,” says Trish Routte with Southwest Florida Crime Stoppers.
Routte is the coordinator of Southwest Florida Crime Stoppers. While there’s been a reduction of crime, there are still those cases that remain unsolved. It’s a 24/7, 365 kind of job- monitoring and trying to bring closure for those families who have lost a loved one. Routte has even discovered a trend, but not a positive one.
“We’re still seeing the same thing over and over- people are so reluctant to help law enforcement solve these crimes,” she says. “Yet, when they become the victim of a crime, they’re the first one to cry, ‘why doesn’t somebody help me?’”
Victims like Angela McClary who, on June 7, 2014, lost her son Deonte and step son Zachary in a double homicide in Fort Myers.
“They try to adjust to them not being there but that pain has been ripped through their heart and it’s so hard to try to adjust for a loved one being lost, especially with a tragedy that happened such as this one,” said McClary.
McClary has since turned her pain into power, becoming an advocate and support system for others who have walked in her shoes. She started the Fort Myers Chapter of Parents of Murdered Children a few years ago.
“We didn’t have one here in the heart of Dunbar so I felt compelled that we needed one here to start because there was so much crime in our local city, there was no one really for them to reach out to.”
It may not bring back her own loved ones but, for McClary, it’s a way to prevent others from losing their’s.
“While we support each other, we grow and strengthen each other during that time,” she says. “My goal was to make sure that there’s not another child who loses their life the ways mine have.”
While there’s been significant work to reduce crime in recent years, those involved say there’s plenty more that needs to be done.
“We police with a purpose here and I’m not saying there isn’t more work to be done- but the way we police here, the way we protect this community here- we’re able to make this community the safest it’s been in many decades,” said Diggs. “There’s a purpose how we police. We know we still have work to do as far as building relationships in the community and that’s part of the reasons why we started this Project Safe Neighborhoods in 2021.”
Project Safe Neighborhoods could be a good start to prevent crime before it even happens. Until then, there’s one commonality that Routte and McClary say needs to change.
“All it takes is one person to step up and report information on these individuals to put them behind bars, hopefully put them in prison for a long time,” says Routte. “One person has the power to make the difference, but that one person needs to step up and realize that it doesn’t matter how long it’s been- you’ve always got the power to do something and make a difference.”
“Just stand up and say no more- our city is in bondage,” said McClary. “We’re in a crisis where we’re losing so many children to a crime of murder that it will come to cease or even reduce the crime that has taken place in our city.”
Fort Myers Police have received the Project Safe Neighborhoods grant to combat crime in the city. Since then- they have asked for additional funding this year and are waiting to see if they have been funded to continue those crime reducing efforts.
Meanwhile, McClary says the Fort Myers Chapter of Parents of Murdered Children will always welcome those parents who are suffering with the loss of a loved one. You can find more information about the group online by visiting their Facebook page.