Gang-related shootings down in Lakeland

- Lakeland Police say there has been a dramatic drop in the number of gang shootings.

In 2014, there were 18. In 2015, there were four. In 2016, they investigated only one.

"When you hear gunshots, you don't know where that bullet is going to fly. You have to duck and hide," said resident Kawan Grice. "Now, you don't hear that anymore. You can walk out of your house without getting hurt."

In addition, the total number of shootings fell from 45 to 18.

"It's a combination of things," said police chief Larry Giddens. "It's not just the Lakeland Police Department, because we can't do this by ourselves."

Giddens helped start an anti-gang push in 2014. His department dedicated 13 officers whose sole jobs were to interact with people in non-confrontational fashion. School resource officers watched troubled teens during summer. Investigations were beefed up to arrest people faster.

"People walk around and they tell our cops and tell us what a great job we are doing," said Giddens. "We see that everyday. You can't believe what that does for the morale of the police officers."

The community responded too.

"On Tuesdays, people show up, we are grilling, everyone gets to eat," said director of the Dream Center, Michael Cooper. "We have a teen basketball league on Wednesday nights. The kids aren't nearly as edgy as they were three years ago."

He organizes outings three times a month.

"Each one of these carts holds enough equipment for 48 people to work off of," he said.

Volunteers clear brush, hand out water and food and just talk.

"You'd be surprised, just taking a flower around to each door, knock on the door, how are you doing, here's a flower. Nobody will turn down a flower. Then you say hey, is there something I can pray with you about? Just agreeing with somebody that their life is going to be better."

Yet three years ago, Lakeland reported four gangs with 465 members. Cooper and Chief Giddens admit success - however sweet - can be fleeting.

"They realize the community isn't going to protect them any longer," said Giddens. "That has curtailed a lot of their violent tendencies."

Their success has been noticed by programs in states like Maine and Alabama who are visiting to find out how Lakeland is doing so well. Pastor Cooper though tells them to grab a rake and start making a difference.

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