Miami-Dade County

County juvenile chief on kids with guns: ‘I’ve never seen anything like it’

Morris Copeland, director of Miami-Dade’s Juvenile Services Department, at a March 30 press conference on steps the county is taking to address youth violence. Behind him are county commissioners Audrey Edmonson and Dennis Moss.
Morris Copeland, director of Miami-Dade’s Juvenile Services Department, at a March 30 press conference on steps the county is taking to address youth violence. Behind him are county commissioners Audrey Edmonson and Dennis Moss. DOUGLAS HANKS

Morris Copeland runs the Miami-Dade agency in charge of juvenile offenders, and he mostly listened during a Thursday panel discussion about youths and violence and what may be causing so many children to end up either firing fatal shots or dying from them.

After about 40 minutes, Copeland leaned into his microphone and delivered the bluntest theory of the day.

“They have unimpeded access to firearms,” said Copeland, director of the the county Juvenile Services Department, which processes most children arrested in the county. “We have 11-, 12-, 13-year-olds packing heat. I’ve been in this business for 28 years. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“Kids are going to fight. Kids are going to disagree,” he continued during the Youth: Next Generation panel at the State of Black Miami Forum at Florida Memorial University. “A child with firearms is a recipe for disaster.”

His comments reflected broader observations shared by law enforcement and education officials as they tackle an alarming spate of children being shot and killed by gunfire. Even after decades of guns and street crime going hand-in-hand in Miami and beyond, local authorities say they’re seeing more children obtaining firearms.

“We can’t put our finger on why there is an increase,” Juan Perez, the county’s police chief, wrote Thursday.

Crime statistics hint at more gun possession among Miami-Dade’s youths. While overall gunfire deaths of children under 18 stayed roughly steady in 2015, there was growth in the number of children and teens shot: 60 through the end of November last year, compared with 45 in 2014, according to school-district data.

Copeland said he has seen a surge in children booked into a special program for offenders caught with guns, with waiting lists that weren’t present even several years ago. As part of a plan that Mayor Carlos Gimenez announced last week, Miami-Dade plans to boost funding for the program to clear the wait.

A former probation officer and veteran of the county and state juvenile-offender programs, Copeland said his staff has been tracking an increase in armed carjackings and armed robberies amid the steady stream of theft and assault cases that make up the bulk of their work. “It’s been extremely alarming to us,” he said.

Shooting statistics are getting more attention as community leaders grasp for any course of action they can take to address high-profile shootings of some of the county’s youngest residents. The primary spark was the Feb. 20 shooting death of 6-year-old King Carter, a first-grader caught in a gun fight by teens furious over Facebook posts.

At Thursday’s panel discussion, part of a day-long discussion organized by the county’s first Haitian-American commission chairman, Jean Monestime, several speakers lamented the low expectations and anemic opportunities surrounding many black youths in the Miami area.

“The black professional class in Miami-Dade County, if you’re fortunate enough to be a part of it, you almost forget everybody else,” said Stephen Johnson, a partner with Miami’s Lydecker Diaz and president of One Hundred Black Men of South Florida. “You have no reason to go see the children in your community unless you force yourself to do it. And the one thing they need to see is black men in suits, running things.”

Panelist Shirley Plantin-Pierre, an executive at the Sant La Haitian Neighborhood Center, said she’s struck by the grim outlook of children who come to the nonprofit. “Our young black men say: ‘Miss, I don’t see you why you’re investing in me. Because I’m not going to live past 18.’

“We’re breeding a community that doesn’t love life,” she said, “and they don’t fear death.”

Tara Malachi, a Liberty City resident who commutes to a job in Broward as a childcare-resource specialist, told the panelists that she is weary of her family living in a neighborhood where dilapidated buildings are allowed to be the norm. “My 16-year-old son scored a 1390 on his SATs. And he wants to move out of this state when he graduates,” Malachi said. “I want to know: Who can I hold accountable?”

This post was updated to clarify Tara Malachi’s job description.

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