Hundreds of Jacksonville residents gather to discuss community-safety initiatives the ICARE Community Problems Assembly on Oct. 30, 2023. [Charlie McGee/The Tributary]

Hundreds of Jacksonville residents from a range of spiritual, racial and socioeconomic backgrounds are calling for change from Sheriff T.K. Waters to treat sky-high shooting deaths as an issue rooted in poverty that requires the engagement of all voices citywide, not just police.

The Interfaith Coalition for Action, Reconciliation and Empowerment, or ICARE, convened Monday night for its annual Community Problems Assembly at Christ the King Catholic Church. Absent were any representatives from the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office – one of a few criticisms lodged by locals throughout the night.

The central criticism stems from a yearslong problem of shootings and gang violence that still shows little sign of slowing.

“We’ve had Democrat sheriffs, Republican sheriffs, Democrat mayors, Republican mayors. It seems like each year, it gets worse,” said George Matthews, a member of Lakewood Presbyterian Church and ICARE’s more than 330-person network.

ICARE argued that rather than pursuing new avenues of combating this problem, Jacksonville’s law-enforcement authority has insisted for years on a lone-wolf approach with ineffective results.

The group called on Waters to fully implement a program known as group violence intervention, spearheaded by David Kennedy of John Jay College’s National Network for Safe Communities. While the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office runs a version of this program on its own, ICARE wants the office to hire the NNSC to ensure the program is properly implemented.

JSO hadn’t responded to a request for comment from The Tributary, but a Sheriff’s Office representative told News4Jax that Waters has met with members of ICARE multiple times about the programs JSO has already initiated.

“Operation Safe Passage which has been integrated and is housed within our Violence Reduction Section has existed for several years,” the statement said. “It has been enormously successful, and the JSO has become the model for other law enforcement agencies and other social services. Sheriff Waters was the architect and oversaw the creation of the program which focused on providing groups and gang involved individuals with appropriate support services so that they can transition away from street violence. The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office has partnered with the National Network for Safe Communities for several years and still maintains a close relationship with them.”

Rev. Adam Gray of Riverside Church at Park and King, who was elected ICARE’s new secretary on Monday, said the group is asking for a $30,000 consulting contract.

“We’re not asking for something hard here,” he said.

JSO got more than $578 million of funding in Jacksonville’s budget for the new fiscal year, nearly a third of the city’s overall operating fund. That includes a 5% raise in funding for patrol and enforcement.

With two months left, this year’s homicide rate in Jacksonville is on track for little improvement. The Sheriff’s Office disclosed a total of 162 homicides last year and 132 homicides in 2021. The data indicates that killings spike in the final two months of any given year.

Rev. Kenneth Emmanuel thinks that Waters, similar to prior Sheriff Mike Williams, “has developed an ‘I’ll show you’ kind of attitude” rather than an openness to new ideas on tamping down violence. He referenced an appearance by Waters at ICARE’s Nehemiah Assembly earlier this year.

“He had kind of an attitude that, ‘You don’t tell me what to do. I’m gonna say no to everything,’” Emmanuel told The Tributary. “That’s because he’s following in the footsteps – in my opinion, I’m not speaking for ICARE – of the leadership of Mike Williams.”

Tracye Polson, director of strategic partnerships for Jacksonville Mayor Donna Deegan, speaks at the ICARE Community Problems Assembly on Oct. 30, 2023. [Charlie McGee/The Tributary]

A representative from Mayor Donna Deegan’s office did join the event. Tracye Polson, director of strategic partnerships for the mayor’s office, spoke about the Deegan administration’s commitment to preventing worsening flood hazards in at-risk areas of Jacksonville.

ICARE also announced that Polson will join it on an upcoming visit to Miami to learn more about safe policing of mental health. The group reiterated calls for JSO to commit a representative of its own to join that trip.

The group violence intervention concept, as explained by ICARE secretary Gray, stems from the idea that much of the violence in a large metro area like Jacksonville is driven by a small group of individuals. That group generally comprises people at the head of gangs and people in precarious enough economic positions to pull the trigger on those gangs’ behalf.

Rather than focusing solely on enforcement, the concept centers on bringing together more people – officers, city hall, churches, service organizations, social workers, prosecutors – to proactively approach the people who are likely sources of future violence.

“You get everyone to the table together, and then you go to these groups that are driving the violence and you say, ‘The shooting has to stop,’” Gray told The Tributary.

The goal isn’t necessarily to stop these individuals from being in gangs or doing drugs. It’s specifically to prevent them from taking the next, drastic step of committing gun violence.

“If you’re willing to stop shooting, we are willing to help you find jobs. We are willing to help you with your kids. We are willing to help you with housing,” Gray said. “But if you don’t stop shooting, the state and federal prosecutors are also right here at the table with us, and we are going to prosecute every single one of you for everything we’ve got on you to the fullest extent of the law. And so now, it’s your choice.”

Charlie McGee covers poverty and the safety net for The Tributary. He’s also a Report for America corps member with The GroundTruth Project, an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization dedicated to supporting the next generation of journalists in the U.S. and worldwide. McGee may be reached at Follow him on Twitter @bycharliemcgee.

Charlie McGee reports on poverty in Jacksonville. He is a Report for America corps member who previously wrote for the regional paper in California’s High Desert. He has written for outlets including...