“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.”
…. From the book “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison
Jacksonville has a long, painful, and expensive history with violence.
Year after year despite gains in overall crime reduction, despite campaign promises met with lethal numbers, despite good intentions, despite multiple efforts, despite evidence that violence remains an outsized problem deserved of extraordinary attention, despite increases in law enforcement, despite unflinching media attention, despite history, Jacksonville remains known as the murder capital of Florida. To move beyond this devastating legacy, the city must learn from its own experiences, listen to its residents, and push its leaders to move forward to establish new citywide priorities.
Our JustJax respondents recognized the need to push the reset button. “The priorities of the majority of the population and city leaders do not include or take into account the needs of people within the affected areas. People in Jacksonville don’t value the entirety of Jacksonville as their focus; their focus is their neighborhood. We have to refocus people to be invested in the city as a whole.”
The year 2020 saw the highest number of murders in Jacksonville in 30 years. Amid an unprecedented year of extraordinary difficulty, as a pandemic produced high levels of anxiety, economic instability, as well as deep racial, social, and political unrest, 144 souls were lost to murder in Jacksonville. These killings included a child of 5 and a woman of 92, although the victims were mainly Black (78 percent), male (85 percent), young (median age 28), and killed by a shooting. The suspects were also mainly Black (82 percent), male (84 percent), and young (median age 25). This was not an anomaly.
While 2020’s total was certainly the highest in three decades, 2019 had already set a high mark, at 131. And the demographics reflect a long-established trend of urban violence that Jacksonville has been struggling with for years. These patterns depict a particularly concentrated form of lethal violence between young Black males living in areas of the city long known to be minority neighborhoods with disproportionate levels of poverty and inopportunity. And Jacksonville is not alone. As academician Thomas Abt, one of the country’s leading voices on violence and crime, says about violence in cities across the U.S.:
“It is the violence that plagues the most disadvantaged communities in our cities. It involves, for the most part, young men killing or wounding other men in tragic and brutal cycles of retribution. Disputes that were once decided with words or fists now result in gunfire that claims not only combatants but also bystanders who just happen to be nearby when one enemy spots another.”1
Statistics from a Jacksonville Community Council Inc. (JCCI) report from 2006 on murder detailed the similarity and durability of Jacksonville’s murders. Reviewing the years 2000 to 2005: the majority (67 percent) of the people killed in the city died of gunshot wounds during crimes largely committed by young males (90 percent), who had extensive criminal histories (an average of 7.3 prior arrests) and were Black (59 percent). Further, the JCCI report shows that “Most of the murder victims and suspects knew one another.”2
More recently, In April 2020, State Attorney Melissa Nelson of the Fourth Judicial Circuit also described Jacksonville’s violence in familiar terms:
“… while the state of Florida experienced a 5 percent decline in murders from 2016 to 2017, Jacksonville homicides increased by nearly 3 percent over that same time period. The burden of this violence is disproportionately felt by communities of color: our own data show that 66 percent of homicide victims are non-white. Last year witnessed 158 homicides in Jacksonville. To date in 2020, there have been 44 murders and over 115 shootings, and the city is on track to meet — if not exceed — last year’s figures. And just Monday, a 5-year-old girl was killed when caught in the crossfire of a gun battle over $180 while sitting in the backseat of a car.”3
Jacksonville has been plagued by high rates of violence for decades. This is unequivocally bad for all residents, bad for businesses, and bad for the city as a whole. But most fundamentally, public safety is a human rights issue. People have a right to live in safety and they have the right to expect their government to ensure that safety. That’s perhaps most significant when we talk about protecting the rights of children, who are harmed in a variety of significant ways by their proximity to violence.
The respondents JustJax spoke to within Jacksonville seemed to understand and embrace that idea. “Fundamentally it’s a human rights and child rights problem. We must treat violence as the cumulative effect of social and environmental factors as well as a profound violation of human rights,” one respondent said.
Historically the responsibility for this safety has been mainly laid at the altar of law enforcement, whose job it is to respond to crime. But the reality is that the effect of simply responding to crime after it occurs is limited, and most importantly, is insufficient. As we heard repeatedly through this project, law enforcement alone has not and will not stop the violence in Jacksonville. By the time the police arrive it is too late. Jacksonville must also focus on preventive measures before it is too late.
The violence notwithstanding, Jacksonville is also a city of hope, a city of incredible people, and a city filled with resources — though not all are shared. Violence in Jacksonville persists as a problem of inequity, inconsistency, and insufficiency. It is a problem of lack of attention, lack of will, and an imbalance of resources deployed toward community safety and well-being.
Jacksonville must stop looking at its high murder rate as inevitable; it is not. The particulars regarding much of Jacksonville’s violence have already been identified. Like so many other cities across the nation, Jacksonville’s violence is concentrated in identified areas of socioeconomic deprivation by a small subset of its population. This is where the work of curbing violence must be deliberately focused.
In speaking with Abt about his approach to crime in Jacksonville, he told JustJax that “in Jacksonville … you’re not going to try to reduce violence everywhere, all at the same time, you’re going to focus on these highest risk individuals and direct your efforts toward that.”
As Jacksonville considers next steps, we assert a broader range of possible avenues to stem violence has been missing for too long. Included in this report are recommendations for critical structural needs – most importantly, the creation of an independent authority as a permanent hub of child well-being and violence reduction efforts as well as the enactment of a community-wide campaign to bring the city together. The former would create an entity — supported by dedicated funding — to provide continuing attention to the crisis of violence. The latter campaign would leverage storytelling to unite Jacksonville as a single entity with empathetic residents intent on making the best decisions for everyone in the city. In a sense, the goal here is to make the invisible neighborhoods visible to all.
There are additional recommendations here that focus on specific opportunities to address gaps in key areas of mental health, youth opportunities, and service provision. These recommendations are not exhaustive, but emerged time and again in our conversations with people living in Jacksonville, so much so that they demanded our attention. So, we listened.
All of these recommendations will require resources, leadership, and a framework to address targeted and publicly accountable goals. It is beyond time for Jacksonville to build a framework for enterprise-level attention to the city’s violence, ensuring that what is a complex and difficult problem is treated not as a project, or in isolation, but as a community-wide priority. It’s time Jacksonville realign its priorities to seek the correct course for the city as a whole.
Duval County Crime and Violence
At the end of 2019, Florida announced another year of overall crime reduction, the latest in a 49-year trend of reductions in crime. As the chart entitled depicts, this trend was experienced across three standard crime measures: total index crime rate, total property rate, and total violent rate (all per 100,000). 4 This drop in the crime rate fell by 6.3 percent, year-to-year from 2018-2019.
Likewise, Duval County has also experienced declines in overall crime, however not as much in comparison to the overall state reduction. For example, Duval closed out 2019 with an overall reduction of 1.6 percent year-to-year. However, within the total reduction, there is an increase in Duval’s violent crime rate, which increased by 6.5 percent year-to-year. Within the category of violent crime, murder, rape, and aggravated assaults all saw increases, with murders increasing by 17 percent, rape increasing by 4 percent, and aggravated assault increasing by 13.2 percent. Jacksonville/Duval is not alone in the increase.
Nationally, homicide rates increased 30 percent from 2019 to 2020, while Jacksonville’s was a 10 percent increase. Researchers have offered that there are generalized similarities shared across the country to consider. Those shared nation-wide factors include pandemic anxiety/frustration, increased unemployment and economic uncertainty, and the racial unrest in response to police and institutional violence against Black people spurred more acutely in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd. So, while Americans still remain safer than we have in decades, the increased and increasing violence numbers are cause for action.
It is also important to recognize that the decreases in property crime, which are the bulk of crimes committed, affect the total crime rate proportionately and can, at least in sheer number, obscure the reality of increases in violent rates. In the case of total property crimes committed in Duval in 2019, that included 37,710 total property crimes, for example, while in the case of violent crimes, this was a total of 6,087 violent crimes.
In 2018, murder increased by 17 percent year-to-year, a rate which, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s (FDLE) Uniform Crime Report (UCR), meant recording 131 murders in Duval County for 2019. While FDLE has not yet released the 2020 UCR yet, we can point to the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office (JSO) numbers for some more recent insight. These are found on the JSO’s transparency website, which tracks homicide and murder numbers by year, and is updated frequently.
As the transparency portal notes, “While the terms homicide and murder are frequently interchanged, they actually have two different meanings. Homicide is a broader term that means the killing of a person by another. A murder is a homicide committed with criminal intent.”5 As examples, homicides could refer to something like vehicular manslaughter or officer-involved fatal shootings that are found to be justified. Homicides can be classified permanently as homicides, or can be recategorized as murder, should criminal intent be established, sometimes at a much later date after the conclusion of an investigation. In the case of 2020, the number of murders alone currently listed are 144.
Regardless of how these incidents will eventually be counted, 2020’s numbers demonstrate there is at least an increase of 13 deaths currently classified as murders, or a 10 percent increase in murders from 2019. Further, at the date of this publication, roughly the first quarter of 2021, Jacksonville has already recorded 29 murders, with another seven homicides pending classification.
Moreover, with more historical perspective, as demonstrated in the chart above, we can see that a disturbing upward trend emerged since 2011, which had recorded the lowest number of murders in this examined time frame. Duval experienced a record low 76 murders in 2011 but that number began climbing in 2012, increasing 23 percent from 2011. From there, the number headed to 144, which was recorded in 2020.
This chart represents 3,392 lost lives.
As noted in a JCCI report from 2006, “Duval County’s murder rate was the highest among Florida counties from 1989 through 1993 and again since 2004.”6 While high among Florida peers, Duval was not alone in the increases. During the early 1990s, the nation saw a dramatic increase in violence, with crime peaking in 1991. Below is a chart comparing Duval’s violent crime to comparable Florida counties which depicts this trend.
The next chart is an updated version, picking up where the JCCI chart ended in 2004 and continuing through 2019. This chart demonstrates the continuing downward trend of crime overall in Florida, and across our most populous counties. The chart compares violent crime rates per 100,000 from 1995-2019 in Florida’s seven most populous counties. Of the years covered in this chart, Duval’s violent crime rate was the highest among these counties in 2017, 2018, and 2019, while it was second highest in the three preceding years, 2014-2016, as well as in 2008 and 2012.
While Jacksonville’s overall crime rate has improved greatly over time, Jacksonville’s murder rate still outpaces the state as a whole and as compared to other counties. In addition, when Duval is compared against the other six most populous counties in Florida, its murder rate outpaces those as well. In fact, Duval County holds the highest rate among these counties during this period, at 25.5 murders per 100,000. With the exception of five years when Miami-Dade led the state (1994-1998) and one year when Orange led the state (2016, the year of the Pulse Nightclub massacre) Duval County held the highest murder rate for 25 of the 31 years covered in this chart.
Obviously, Duval County is an outlier in the amount of street violence in the state. In 2020, one body turned up nearly every three days on the streets of Jacksonville. Many of these resulted in yet another type of loss, the waste of a life lost to the state’s criminal justice system. The loss of human life and human potential is dramatic.
But there are other things lost to violence as well. The reputation of a city, the security of residents, the well-being of children and adults, the damage to businesses, the rending of families, to name only some.
Another factor perhaps not spoken about enough concerns financial loss. Violence is expensive. In fact, the costs are staggering. According to Abt, the social cost of each homicide is estimated to range from $10 million to $19 million, depending on the study.7 The calculations include, “direct costs like law enforcement costs and medical costs, but it’s also translating the indirect costs of fear and avoidance into diminished commercial activity, reduced property values and increased insurance premiums.”8
Using Jacksonville’s 2020 murder numbers, at the lowest estimate, this totals $1.4 billion.
For scale, we direct you to the current total budget for the City of Jacksonville, which is $1.34 billion.
In Jacksonville, each initial gunshot wound seen at the hospital is estimated to cost $1 million. As research conducted by trauma surgeon Marie Crandall found, “Second only to Miami Dade county, Duval County has consistently had more than 2,000 incidences of firearm-related crime yearly during the past 10 years.”9 Avoiding any number of these injuries immediately saves lives and money.
It is easy to see that preventions and interventions that reduce the violence and murders would be in the best interest of taxpayers and society at large. It is also easy to imagine that a targeted plan of murder and violence reduction that used a portion of calculated savings to be reinvested directly into targeted violence reduction efforts, including supportive programs meant to mitigate inequities and bolster opportunities, would be a welcome and cost-effective methodology.
It’s a cost that is borne by everyone. “While the poor suffer most, everyone pays a price for high rates of homicide,” Abt said.
1Abt, T. (2019). Bleeding Out: The Devastating Consequences of Urban Violence–and a Bold New Plan for Peace in the Streets. Basic Books.
2Jacksonville Community Council, Inc. (2006). “Reducing Murder: A Community Response”.Retrieved march 24, 2021, from https://issuu.com/jcci/docs/06-reducing-murder-study/6
3Nelson, M. Written Statement to the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice Testimony: Reduction of Crime. (April 8, 2020).
4Florida Department of Law Enforcement. (n.d.). Uniform Crime Report. https://www.fdle.state.fl.us/FSAC/Uniform-Crime-Report
5Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office. (n.d.) Open data and transparency, Jacksonville homicides. Retrieved March 24, 2021, from https://transparency.jaxsheriff.org/HOTS/Murder
6JCCI, p. 13
7McCollister, K. E., French, M. T., & Fang, H. (2010). The cost of crime to society: New crime-specific estimates for policy and program evaluation. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 108(1–2), 98–109. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2009.12.002
8Martin, M. (2019, July 13). Thomas Abt talks new book on urban violence, ‘Bleeding Out’. NPR. Retrieved March 24, 2021, from https://www.npr.org/2019/07/13/741485111/thomas-abt-talks-new-book-on-urban-violence-bleeding-out
9Bayouth, L., Lukens-Bull, K., Gurien, L., Tepas, J. J., & Crandall, M. (2019). Twenty years of pediatric gunshot wounds in our community: Have we made a difference? Journal of Pediatric Surgery, 54(1), 160–164.