Liberty Square sees more police but many say they're not solution to gun violence

Liberty Square residents and police look for ways to prevent violence in their community

Three weeks since two teens were shot dead on a Sunday afternoon, Miami police have saturated Liberty Square. Residents, though, say they have more important needs like job training and fun things for kids to do after school.
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Three weeks since two teens were shot dead on a Sunday afternoon, Miami police have saturated Liberty Square. Residents, though, say they have more important needs like job training and fun things for kids to do after school.

In the weeks since two teens were killed in broad daylight in Miami's Liberty Square, police have once again put on a show of force in the dilapidated 709-unit housing project at the heart of Liberty City.

There's now a command center. Patrol cars saturate the area and some cops ride through on horseback. Officers are out to stem violence and major crimes, of course, but they've even issued more traffic and parking tickets. A large digital sign at a street corner outside one entrance urges, "See something, say something."

It's what law enforcement and the city's political leaders do almost every time there's a high-profile shooting in a community long wracked by crime and gunfire: Express outrage and ramp up the police presence.

Yet many residents don't see flooding the streets with law enforcement as the solution to the community's underlying problems or stubborn cycle of violence. What Liberty Square needs most, many residents say, are basic necessities and better options: job training, places to work, banks and supermarkets, maybe a bowling alley or a small water park or some places kids can safely play after school. Things that are taken for granted across much of the rest of the city.

"My son doesn't even come outside. He just got home from school. He's inside playing a game. I want him to get some sun. But you don't know what will happen," said Anthony Butler, who also has a 5-month-old daughter. "I don't care, build 'hood things. Throw a ring toss in the courtyard. When I grew up here we went to the center and had fun. We used to play football. Now I don't see anybody go to that center."

Many residents seem to share his take. One evening earlier this week, a couple of dozen people outside the Liberty Square Community Center demanded to enter and make their case for changes — but also to express concerns about an on-going project that city leaders insist will bring the very changes they seek, a $307 million housing development.

A year ago, to much fanfare, ground was broken on a massive new development inside Liberty Square that Miami's elected leaders hailed as long-delayed help and progress for the sprawling and struggling public housing section. The 1,445 units in redeveloped Liberty Square will be built in phases so, they pledged, residents can move in as units become available. The community overhaul includes rental apartments, private homes, courtyards, shops, offices and a community center and is projected to be completed by 2020.

Miami-Dade Commissioner Audrey Edmonson, who represents the district, billed it as a "renaissance." County Mayor Carlos Gimenez praised the project as a step toward "changing the narrative surrounding Liberty Square and Liberty City."

The group outside the community center remains unpersuaded, however, saying they fear the shiny new development will only wind up displacing them.

But they hadn't reserved any space at the center and it was after hours so there was no one there to formally take their complaints. As center staffers left for the evening, some in the group began yelling at them.

"Their concerns are about change for the youth and the development," said Brandy Wells, who said she was speaking on behalf of another woman who lost a child to the latest Liberty Square shooting. "There's nothing for them [the kids] to do. They have nothing in this community. They need more funding and programming and job training."

Crystal Corner, president of the Liberty Square Resident Council, hopes an ambitious redevelopment plan will help living standards for residents. MATIAS J. OCNER

Crystal Corner, president of Liberty Square's residence council, tried to address the crowd outside the center, telling them they were misinformed after missing meetings over the past six months explaining how they will have the opportunity to move into new apartments when construction is completed.

"They don't come out," said Corner, afterward. "I believe the redevelopment will help them."

The encounter outside the center underlines how much trust, or lack of it, remains an issue in Liberty Square. Residents have heard similar promises from city leaders before and not forgotten many broken ones surrounding the long-gone James E. Scott housing project. Almost two decades ago, James E. Scott and the adjacent Carver homes were razed amid promises that they would be replaced.

Residents were given vouchers and promised they'd be allowed to move into new units. But legal disputes set the development back more than a decade. By the time new homes were built, most residents were left on their own and wounded up scattered around Miami-Dade County.

"They did it in the Scotts,'' said Butler. "They always say it's gonna be different. My best friend's mom stayed in the Scotts. I was a shorty at the time. I remember seeing her name on a board. She never came back."

Butler doesn't think he can wait again for the promised improvements.

"I need to get out of here. I don't care where,'' he said. "Anywhere that's safer than here."

In the meantime, however, some of the police tactics to reduce violence don't sit well with him.

"They're all just trying to intimidate us," he said. "I'm not scared of nobody. I've been in prison for seven years. Cops came by the other day on horses and ticketed cars in the street. I asked them if they all get fined for their horses shi---ng in the street."

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A man walks down Northwest 63rd Street and 14th Avenue in Liberty Square earlier this month. MATIAS J. OCNER

Liberty Square's decline began decades ago. The eight-square block complex was built some 80 years ago, touted as housing for mostly upwardly mobile blacks leaving service jobs in Coconut Grove and other communities. Time has been hard on the community, with the beige and rust-colored buildings themselves and the quality of life both long in decay. Today, most residents are poor and say gunfire is almost routine.

The latest was a brazen middle-of-a-Sunday-afternoon shooting that claimed two lives. On April 7, Rickey Dixon, 18, and Northwestern High School student Kimson Green, 17, and two others were talking on the front lawn of a home when, a neighbor told the Miami Herald that someone "came through like they thought they were Rambo" with heavy fire. Dixon and Green were killed. The other two were injured.

The audacity of the shooting sparked a backlash. Northwestern students walked out of school in protest of the gun violence. Police marched hand-in-hand with children during a peace rally.

But like many past murders, the killings remain unsolved. Perhaps fearful of reprisal, no one has come forward with solid tips. Police also have yet to pinpoint a motive, though residents don't think it involved the drug trade that has sparked past violence. More likely, they say, it could have been over a personal beef.

"The crazy part about it," says Corner, the resident council president and community center director, "is they get into a lot of social media fights and it escalates from there. They play Optimist together. They spend nights at each other's houses. They just start beefing with each other and they just start shooting."

Something lost in the latest killings: Shootings are actually trending down significantly in Liberty Square. Dixon and Green were the second and third gun fatalities in the community this year, according to a law enforcement source. In March, a 4-year-old girl was shot and killed accidentally during a domestic dispute. In total, 11 others have been shot and injured this year in the Liberty Square area, which runs from Northwest 12th to 15th avenues and 62nd to 67th streets.

Four years ago, a Miami Herald investigation found that 11 people had been killed and 43 people wounded in the same neighborhood in the first six months of 2014.

During a press conference Wednesday at Miami police headquarters, Miami and county leaders pledged to keep the extra cops at Liberty Square for "as long as it takes." They believe they're making progress in making the streets safer.

In two weeks, police said there had been 86 arrests and 19 weapons confiscated, including an AK-47. They said they're working to fix many of the broken cameras placed around Liberty Square. Miami City Manager Emilio Gonzalez has asked his commission to spend $90,000 on 39 new surveillance cameras that would be synchronized with a gunfire detection system called ShotSpotter. They also repeated past pledges, promising to bolster after-school programs and stimulate economic investment in the community.

Miami police officer Natalie Rodriguez patrols on duty through Miami's Liberty City. She is part of an influx of extra officers intended to help make the streets safer at the public housing project. MATIAS J. OCNER

Later that day, at a Community Relations board meeting, Miami's Liberty City police Cmdr. Keandra Simmons said police are getting to know the residents better while saturating the neighborhood. Her department has organized a kickball game for Saturday in Liberty Square.

"In all honesty it's working. The community is there. They're embracing us," Simmons said. "Just give them the safety every community deserves."

While some Liberty Square residents remain skeptical about the future, others believes the pending redevelopment has real potential to reverse the community's fortunes.

One of them is Miami attorney H.T. Smith, a long-time civil rights activist who led a successful boycott campaign after the county snubbed South African anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela in 1990. He points to the success of the Hope VI homes next to Gwen Cherry Park, where residents became homeowners and a youth center was built.

"People started putting up white picket fences. White picket fences," Smith said. "It changed their quality of life. They went from people living like packed animals to people having space. People feel safer. They're stakeholders. The economic engine part is what is needed to make [Liberty Square] sustainable. If people can walk to the store, go to the doctor, have a place to exercise it makes all the difference. Because if you're safe, the rest of it don't mean a damn thing. A police state is not going to make a damn difference."