Thursday, June 13

Commissioner frustrated after plan axed: ‘We make progress, we get pushed back’

It’s a question that continues to persist in Fort Pierce: How to address the recent gun violence?

WPTV has been working to get answers to that question for more than a month, and we’ve now learned a county program that previously mitigated violence was dissolved due to a lack of funding.

For weeks, we’ve been empowering the voices of community residents concerned about the recent gun violence.

“Something is wrong in this neighborhood,” said Margaret Butts after three people were killed in shootings May 18th.

“I am calling for a change,” added Tonia Thompson, who’s father was one of the the three who lost their lives that day.

“We cant really walk at night,” Joseph Ferguson told WPTV’s Ethan Stein following the shooting of a 16-year-old girl June 8th.

“Imagine its 2 oclock in the morning, you hear that theres a shooting and your son says, ‘Dad, I saw the guy with the gun and it looked like it was coming right at me! said James Monds, whose son was nearly shot during a shooting at a graduation party Memorial Day Weekend.

Something has to be done,” said Aisha Nash with the St Lucie County NAACP.

Since Mother’s Day there have been eight shootings in the northwest area of the City, injuring at least 10 victims and killing at least 3 people.

Multiple victims are under the age of 18.

“That reality does exist. To ignore it and to say it doesnt happen would be foolish,” said St. Lucie County Commissioner Chris Dzadovsky, whose district is Fort Pierce.

In Monday’s City Commission Meeting, City leaders released community poll results showing only 55% of people feel safe from violent crime. 93% of residents polled said violent crime should be a top priority.

Dzadovsky said there once was a solution in place that was working.

“It was back in 2014 when we found our crime rates were off the charts. 20 murders in 2014 alone. And we knew we had to do something,” said Dzadovsky.

The Department of Justice gave the City a $200,000 grant in 2014 to fund a Comprehensive Gang Plan, focusing on mental health, substance abuse and youth mentoring to curb violent crime.

“We had boots on the ground, we had people in the neighborhoods,” said Dzadovsky.

That system worked. Data from the Roundtable of St Lucie County’s Impact Report shows since the program launched in 2014, violent crime dropped by 42%. Murders dropped by 10%, Aggravated Assaults were down more than 14% and robberies dropped by nearly 30%, even though the population went up by 6%.

Yet according to documents on the DOJ’s website, the grant wasn’t renewed after 2016.

“When you start seeing success, they tend to say, okay, well you’re on your way now, but $200,000 just doesnt come easy. So we lost the $200,000,” said Dzadovsky.

Dzadovsky said the Comprehensive Gang Plan program dissolved soon after, and the impacts were immediate. In 2018. violent crime in the City started spiking again.

Dzadovsky said the County did move some money around to try to fund the program but that money was pulled to fund cameras in county parks following the mass shooting in Ilous Ellis park on Martin Luther King day in 2023.

The program is still penniless.

“So today, I’m still continuing to try to find that money,” said Dzadovsky.

WPTV had suggested the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, who WPTV’s Kate Hussey connected with the City of Fort Pierce to potentially start a Community Violence Intervention program, which dropped Orlando’s crime rate by 36% in one year.

Yet Dzadovsky wondered if restarting a program with groundwork already laid, like the Comprehensive Gang Plan, may be better than starting another from scratch.

“We know what works, weve got to put those parts back in place and find ways to find that funding,” said Dzadovsky.

“Weve been in touch with the Department of Justice who is offering grants similar to what the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition offers, have commissioners looked into that?” asked Hussey.

I can tell you that I’ve been shaking trees and trying to find any opportunities I can get,” said Dzadovsky. “Fort Pierce is a beautiful city and it deserves… I’m sorry.”

“I can see you’re getting emotional,” said Hussey.

“I love Fort Pierce, and I love this county, and I want it to be the best it can be,” said Dzadovsky.

“What about this hits home for you?” asked Hussey.

“In my first three months on the job, I got a call at 7:30 in the morning and three children waiting for a bus were shot dead,” said Dzadovsky. “I said I would never let that happen again. And every time we make progress, every time we make progress we get pushed back. We’ve got to maintain the progress, we’ve got to maintain the momentum.”

WPTV reached out to the Department of Justice to ask why the funding was pulled and to see if the city and county can get it back to refund the program lost.

A DOJ representative is currently working on our request.

Dzadovsky also said commissioners are looking at raising salaries for deputies to better recruit and retain, as he and commissioners will keep searching for solutions.

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