In the middle of the afternoon, as young students from Frances S. Tucker Elementary waited for the dismissal bell to ring and release them from school, a different, frightening noise rang out down the street.
Gunfire popped just a few blocks away, forcing the school to go under lock-down last week as two shooters spewed as many as 20 shots across busy Douglas Road. It was the second nearby daylight shooting to interrupt classes since students returned in August. Earlier this school year, a man was killed at night beneath the marquee.
The brazen gunplay near the schools, childcare centers, parks and churches of the West Grove has alarmed parents and caught the attention of police, who are investigating whether at least eight shootings in the predominately African American and Caribbean community are the work of feuding young people. Following the Sept. 29 shooting, police are increasing patrols and working with the community to halt the violence.
“When you have a shooting in the middle of the day where 25 shots are fired and there’s kids running around, you gotta put a stop to it,” said Javier Gonzalez, president of the Coconut Grove Village Council.
Police believe the recent violence is the result of quarreling teens as young as 14 who belong to small, loose-knit groups that could roughly be described as gangs. Miami police Cmdr. Manny Morales said investigators believe the youngsters were left unchecked after a roundup, which officers conducted in the neighborhood almost two years ago with federal agents, led to federal indictments for 10 and state charges for several others. He said the fighting isn't so much a battle to fill drug holes, but chaos over drug and weapons sales caused by a lack of criminal leadership.
“Their personal differences were being kept in check by dominant criminals,” Morales said. “So now all these juveniles are feuding with each other.”
Morales said crime in the West Grove is actually down compared with 2013, including the number of shootings. But police started noticing problems on July 7, when a young person was shot near Elizabeth Virrick Park three months after two were shot one block east of Tucker Elementary, 3500 Douglas Rd. One month later, someone was shot and killed at the elementary school’s campus after hours, followed by two drive-by shootings on consecutive days near Virrick and Armbrister parks, the latter of which is tucked between Tucker Elementary and George Washington Carver Middle School, 4901 Lincoln Dr. in Coral Gables.
On Sept. 1 a male was shot in the leg near Hibiscus Street, again on the corner of Virrick Park, where children play basketball and sit beneath giant concrete mushroom canopies. Bullets flew again during a drive-by Sept. 20 down the street from the park, and then on Sept. 29 not far from Tucker Elementary on Douglas Road, the main drag into the West Grove from U.S. 1.
Police say they believe the shooting, during which no one was injured, was the work of two Coral Gables High School students, and may be linked to the other seven. However, Morales said police are having problems nailing down exactly who is involved because members of the small gangs believe in street justice and don't want to snitch.
For West Grove residents, that’s hard to swallow, because just about everyone knows everyone.
“About every two weeks there’s been another shooting and they all seem to be related,” said Courtney Omega, a West Grove crime watch member who lives on a stretch of Hibiscus Street across the street from Virrick Park, 3255 Plaza St. “What’s most concerning is people, they know who these people are but people aren’t talking.”
Last Monday, just two hours after police responded to the Douglas Road shooting, Cmdr. Morales met at Miami City Hall with Omega and other activists, who began sending alarmed emails back-and-forth. Morales said police take all shootings seriously, but the mid-afternoon gunplay was far too brazen, and when coupled with the other shootings shows a reckless disregard for the community.
So for the next two months, police will inundate the West Grove and the area around Tucker Elementary with a show of force that includes mounted patrols on Saturdays and on Wednesdays during school hours, K9 units, and a sergeant and seven patrol officers assigned to five hot spots.
Morales said the department's gang unit is also revising its gang charts to update information. And officers from GREAT, Gang Resistance Education and Training, who are federally trained, will spend time with Frances Tucker fifth-graders, teaching them the dangers and how to stay away from gangs.
“We're trying to get back to Officer Friendly,” Morales said. “Where the kids know the names of the officers.”
Activists say they have arranged a town hall meeting for 7 p.m. Thursday at Virrick Park, and are working with the office of District 2 Commissioner Marc Sarnoff to brainstorm ways to address problems outside the scope of law enforcement. Omega said she and others are pushing for more social programs at parks and schools, and for programs that combat the typical no-snitch policy that often blocks police investigations.
Ruth Ewing, who is also on the Village Council and lives next to Virrick Park with her middle schooler son, said she’s hoping the community can address the problems before they get out of hand and a kid gets shot while walking home from school.
“It’s really disturbing as a parent to know that’s a prospect for your child that you really have no control over,” she said. “These are coming quite close to home.”
Miami Herald staff writer Andres Viglucci contributed to this report.
This article was corrected to accurately reflect the month during which the first of several possibly linked shootings occurred in the West Grove.