Under pressure to stem gun deaths among children, Miami-Dade’s mayor on Wednesday announced a new program aimed at getting police officers as close as possible to would-be offenders and victims: They’ll be assigned to their living rooms.
Dubbed the Youth Outreach Unit, the 25-officer team will be given a matching set of low-level juvenile offenders deemed as at the highest risk for being involved in more serious crimes. Officers will attempt to serve as mentors to the children by visiting their homes and trying to assist their families.
“We can’t just stop and wait for crimes to be committed,” Gimenez said at a press conference in the county’s police headquarters in Doral. “We’re all Miamians. Children killing other children is a problem that affects every one of us … not just the people who live in the neighborhoods where the highest number of shootings are taking place.”
Gimenez announced the $500,000 YOU effort as part of a larger package of initiatives aimed at diverting troubled youths from paths that lead to gun violence. The strategy hinges on the conclusion that a relatively small number of children generate an outsized portion of the county’s youth violence, either as the perpetrators or victims of shootings.
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What we basically have is a small group of folks, who I refer to as community terrorists, wreaking havoc in our community
Miami-Dade Commissioner Dennis Moss
“We know that the problem isn’t widespread,” Juan Perez, the county’s police director, said at the press conference at police headquarters. “There are few kids that get to this point.”
Perez described the program as “home-based” community policing, aimed at youths deemed most at risk of being involved in gun-related crimes. He said officers would meet with the child’s family, as well as teachers, and try to solve as many problems as possible — such as summoning county sanitation crews to remove an abandoned car on the child’s street, or seeking benefits for households unable to feed their children.
“We’re going to bring services and programs to that home to prevent that child from picking up a gun,” he said. “We’re going to change the environment for that child.”
By Perez’s estimates, there are roughly 600 youth offenders deemed to be at the highest risk for gun problems (he said about 15 percent of the 4,000 children who come into the county’s juvenile-offender system), and the YOU program would only target 25 children. The staffing is limited to 25 officer positions funded by a federal community-policing grant. Perez said that the program, targeting offenders between the ages of 9 and 14, would grow if successful.
The Gimenez press conference comes as he faces criticism from his main 2016 challenger, school board member Raquel Regalado, over the alarming number of children shot and killed in the county. In a campaign video released last week, she criticized the Gimenez administration for ending a stand-alone gang unit in the county’s investigative arm and described a “tipping point” when it comes to violence in the community.
We’re going to bring services and programs to that home to prevent that child from picking up a gun. We’re going to change the environment for that child.
Miami-Dade Police Director Juan Perez
In a statement, the county’s police union blasted Gimenez for “giving our community a false sense of security and hope.”
“The reality is that with our current manpower levels, we can barely staff districts, let alone reinstate true community policing programs, like we had in the past,” read the statement from the Police Benevolent Association. “This is simply another attempt to improve his image on public safety.”
Dennis Moss, one of three county commissioners who joined Gimenez in Doral, praised the mayor for the new plan, which includes more money for gun-buyback programs and a summer-job program with slots for about 1,850 at-risk youths. But Moss noted that budget pressures have left Miami-Dade less able to offer youth opportunities than it used to be, when the county would employ 6,000 or more young people in summer jobs.
He also said the focus on improving life for a smaller population of offenders made sense.
“What we basically have is a small group of folks, who I refer to as community terrorists, wreaking havoc in our community,” Moss said. “We’re competing against the streets. So when we’re not there to provide support to these young people … the streets are there to say, ‘I’m you’re mommy, I’m your daddy, I’ll provide you with resources.’”