By WILL GREENLEE email@example.com
The Florida Supreme Court on Wednesday ordered a special grand jury to investigate gang-related crimes, prompting high marks from local law enforcers — though some remained unclear how the initiative would work with their own efforts. While the grand jury will probe crime statewide, the counties included in the specified judicial circuits are Indian River, Okeechobee, St. Lucie, Martin, Palm Beach and Broward, along with five others in Southwest Florida.
Those counties were chosen as bases because jurors there are seen as representative of the population and because of gang issues there, said William Shepherd, statewide prosecutor for the Attorney General's office.
"I think that there are gang problems developing throughout Florida, and part of what we want to do through this is seek indictments on specific gangs and work with our law enforcement partners to develop best practice strategies," Shepherd said. "The answer of where's the gang problem the worst is wherever a gang anywhere in our state has just committed a homicide or committed an act of violence."
Asked how the 12-month grand jury would affect the work of local law enforcement agencies, he said, "It just gives them another opportunity and another venue to work in conjunction with a prosecutorial agency, to sort of step back from the case and take a bigger picture look at it."
A Gang Prevention Task Force was formed in Sebastian earlier this year after concerns were raised about possible gang activity, mainly involving spray painting, around the Barber Street Sports Complex. There also have been reports of similar incidents in Fellsmere. And in May, four students were arrested for two gang-related incidents at the Vero Beach High School campus.
Martin County Sheriff Robert Crowder said gangs in his county are "trying to creep in," but they don't have a "chronic presence" because his deputies are maintaining pressure.
"Being able to look more clearly at the larger perspective on this gang problem, I think it will help us to be more effective statewide," he said.
To be considered for prosecution purposes by this special grand jury, a crime must have aspects that cross circuit boundaries. The 19th judicial circuit includes Martin, St. Lucie, Indian River and Okeechobee counties.
"At this point we don't know what type of impact Governor Christ's grand jury will have on Fort Pierce," Fort Pierce police Sgt. Dennis McWilliams said. "We are hopeful it will have a positive effect on the number of gangs in Fort Pierce and gang-related crime."
In general, gangs have been in Fort Pierce since the late 1980s and have been linked to some of the city's most violent crimes, including homicides and shootings. More than 400 gang members live in Fort Pierce, ranging from pre-teens to those in their late 30s, said Kathy Grace, police crime analyst who specializes in gang intelligence.
"Most recently in the headlines have been the challenges that West Palm Beach is having with gang violence, but the truth is it's a statewide problem," St. Lucie County Sheriff Ken Mascara said. "We're either suffering from direct effects or indirect effects of gangs. I think that this was a wise move by the governor to empower a grand jury to look at this across the state."
In Okeechobee County, Detective Sgt. Brad Stark, his agency's sole investigator dedicated to street crime and gang probes, said there are about eight gangs with 250 members. Gangs have been in Okeechobee County for at least 13 years, he said.
"I don't know how a legislative grand jury is going to help a small, rural county like Okeechobee County," he said. "If they can come up with some kind of action or plan, then I'm all for it ... We are seeking grants for gang investigations. We have been unsuccessful."