Sheriff McNeil commissions ‘Anatomy of a Homicide’ study

By Vaughn Wilson
Outlook Staff Writer

Leon County Sheriff Walt McNeil was perplexed by the growth in gun violence in Leon County. McNeil served more than 40 years in law enforcement and is known for his innovative thinking, and he understood trends he was seeing but longed for scientific data to back up his assertions. 

In 2021, McNeil, the first Black sheriff of Leon County, commissioned a study as a collaboration between the Leon County Sheriff’s Office, The Florida Sheriff’s Association, and the Florida State University School of Criminal Justice. The in-depth study titled “Anatomy of a Homicide,” examined five years of homicides committed in Leon County.  

McNeil, who once served as chief of Tallahassee’s Police Department , secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections and an advisor to the Obama administration, has dealt with all aspects of law enforcement. 

McNeil is passionate about his approach. He explained that traditionally, it is not the job of the sheriff’s office to prevent crime.

“By the time we’re called, a crime has already been committed,” he said. “The way you judge a sheriff’s department or a police department is whether we arrest the person that has done the crime. It’s not our job to use a medical model to try to identify these kids and work with these families. That’s a social service environment.  But, absent those applications and resources being effective in our community, what I do and what I believe in is that we all should step in. That’s why we call it ‘All In.’”

Their analysis is available online. There are also two versions available — a full version and a summary report where the results of the study have been condensed.

(NOTE: link and QR code at the end of this article).  

The report revealed significant data about patterns of gun violence in Tallahassee. “The data showed that it was primarily African-American males shooting African-American males,” the sheriff said. “Most of the combatants knew each other, they came from the same neighborhoods. The telling things for me were two things — One, almost 90 percent of the kids were either expelled from school or were placed in alternative schools.  We kind of anecdotally knew. You heard the old cliche ‘from the schoolhouse to the jailhouse,’ this exactly proves it.  “Second,” he continued, “To drill down on that data even further, what you find is that in some instances kids coming into school are not coming in prepared for school.  If you think about this, we have households across our community that are in trauma.  The kids now are experiencing that same trauma.  When they come to school with the  trauma they are experiencing in their home, it then translates to actions, that are taking place in our schools.” 

The 93-page comprehensive and in-depth study examines 135 homicides between 2015-2020.  

The report does not just provide data, it offers some solutions, including collaborations with community groups to focus on identifying children with trauma at home. The first step is to define the problem in detail.  LCSO also suggested bolstering partnerships in the community ranging from other law enforcement to community organizations that focus on singular solutions.

McNeil has been presenting the report to groups throughout the community and soliciting suggestions from those on the ground as well.  He says the approach is designed to solicit buy-in from the community in solving the issue.

McNeil said he fully understands that in these times, he has to assist in being the change the community desires. 

“We step out of our law enforcement role and get into trying to coordinate now with the Status of Men and Boys,” he said. “…We’re still in the process of creating it, because people think these are simple solutions. These are very complicated issues in our society. 

McNeil added that solutions go beyond simply arresting an assailant. 

“The easiest thing I can do is simply say those are social service problems within our community, those are health problems in our community, that’s a failure of our school system, it’s a failure of our society and my job as sheriff is to just go out there and make those arrests. What that does is just keep that cycle going.”

McNeil has begun the process of developing the Status of Men and Boys coalition, a group designed to bring together entities who service the different aspects of what is lacking in the young men to attempt to try to head off issues in the future.  Preliminary funding for the group has been approved by Leon County, but McNeil said there’s still work to do in fully establishing a working unit.

McNeil has also seen hope in the implementation of the Children Services Council.  

“I’ve had two conversations with Mrs. Green and the CSC and they’ve been very good conversations,” he shared.  “We’re in the process of trying to hire an executive director for the Status of Men and Boys, so it’s taking us some time, but we want to go slow.  This isn’t something you rush into and go ‘here’s the answer.’  These are really complex issues and Mrs. Green and I have talked about the complexity of this and she’s given us some advice about our providers,” the sheriff added.

McNeil said he wants to make it clear that in no way is the Status of Men and Boys designed to replace other organizations within the community who are addressing issues already.  He wants to bridge the gaps left in the community, which result in the conditions that ultimately lead youth to resort to gun violence as the answer to their problems.  

“What do you do when you’re in school and everybody else is further advanced than you are?” McNeil reflected.  “You feel isolated and you feel incompetent and what does that do, it turns inward.  The way you then deal with this issue is you become mad.  You become angry.  You then start to act out.  In some instances they are acting out just to get kicked out of school because this is an environment that is not good for me from their perspective.  I am in an environment where all these other kids have a head start, so the cycle then starts.” 

The residents of Leon County overwhelmingly re-elected McNeil sheriff. With experience at all levels of law enforcement from the front lines of enforcement to the institution of incarceration, McNeil has had inside experience on the cycles that create and perpetuate criminal activity. These factors directly correlate to the rise in gun violence experienced in Leon County.  

With “Anatomy of a Homicide” as a direct case study, McNeil said he is on a mission to unite the services of Leon County to break the pattern of factors that lead young Black men to the conclusion that gun violence is the final answer.

Visit https://www.leoncountyso.com/ALLin-LEON/Anatomy-of-a-Homicide to view the full report

 


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