Lakeland residents march, celebrate drop in gang violence

By Stephanie Claytor, Reporter
Last Updated: Friday, May 19, 2017

Lakeland’s Gang Task Force held a celebratory march Thursday, marking the city’s remarkable comeback from a few years back when gang violence plagued the city.

Lakeland residents march, celebrate drop in gang violence

  • Gang violence plagued city a few years ago
  • 18 out of 45 shootings in 2014 were gang related
  • In 2016, only one out of 18 was gang related

During the “Refuse to Lose March,” more than 50 people screamed “enough is enough” throughout one of Lakeland’s northwest neighborhoods, near Jewell Ave. and 2nd Street.

It’s an area where back in 2014, gang violence prevailed. That year, Lakeland Police reported 45 shootings—eight of which were fatal--and 18 of those were traced back to gangs.  

Police Chief Larry Giddens had just taken over the department back then.

“We knew we had some serious challenges,” said Chief Larry Giddens.

It’s a time Lolita Berrien remembers all too well. A shooting in Webster Park caused a stray bullet to go through her home.

“Well it was scary thinking that if we had been home and my granddaughter had been home standing at the window. That was a frightening thought,” said Lolita Berrien.

After that, Lolita Berrien joined the newly created gang task force, led by Commissioner Phillip Walker.

“It was black on black crime. And it was getting worse. It wasn’t getting better. So we as neighbors, and people and parents, and aunties and uncles needed to do something different. And that was to come together and see how we could make a difference,” Berrien recalled.

Many of the shootings happened in the northwest part of the city, where everybody knew everybody, and many were related.  Berrien said word of mouth and bringing awareness through the pulpit helped fight the violence.

“We let it be known that things needed to be changed. The violence needed to stop,” Berrien said.

Gang task force member Pastor Mike Cooper, executive director of the Dream Center, said the quarterly neighborhood cleanups also helped reduce the violence.  

During one of them, he said a former gang member came to him, asking for help.

“Over a four month period, we developed a relationship, and finally he came to my office and said ‘Pastor Mike, I can’t, this is crazy. I can’t do this anymore.’ He was moving from house to house living, always looking over his shoulder,” recalled Pastor Mike Cooper.

Pastor Cooper said he sent the man up north to get some help. Now, years later, he said the young man got his GED and is now headed to college.

Just as that man’s life has drastically changed, so have Lakeland’s crime stats.

In 2016, Lakeland’s police department reported 18 shootings citywide, and only one of them gang related. This year, Chief Giddens said there have been three shootings, none gang related, and none fatal.  

“That is over a 50 percent reduction in gang violence. In fact that is huge,” Chief Giddens said.

Even with the reduction, Chief Giddens said he’s aware the gangs could easily return and cause chaos again. He said that’s why they’re marching to send a message of non-violence, and remaining vigilant. ​