Despite string of mass shootings, Miami-Dade bucks national trend of rising murder rate




  • In US
  • 2022-01-10 12:21:50Z
  • By Miami Herald

The year 2021 started out with two mass shootings just outside musical venues that left four people dead and 26 injured - a foreboding start that seemed to continue a troubling violent trend from the year before.

Then something unexpected happened. Homicides in Miami-Dade County plummeted. Law enforcement leaders attributed it to stepped-up enforcement, a focused effort to get guns off the street and prosecutions. Others pointed to an array of social factors.

Whatever the reason, murders throughout Miami-Dade County, with its 2.7 million residents, declined by more than 15 percent compared to the previous year, bucking a national trend in which more than a dozen cities across the U.S. set all-time high murder rates.

"We had more resources to investigate. We shared information. We seized tons of firearms off the streets and the state attorney helped by giving additional attorneys to close cases," said Miami-Dade Police Director Alfredo "Freddy" Ramirez.

In 2021, the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner's Office recorded 245 homicides. That's 45 less than the previous year - a year in which law enforcement attributed much of a 15 percent uptick in homicides to the frustrations of being locked down during the pandemic. The ME's records show that 188 of last year's murders were from gunfire. Others came from stabbings, drownings, assault, even arson.

The county's homicide numbers pale in comparison to those of many cities across the country with similar populations.

Chicago, with the same population as Miami-Dade, continued its skyrocketing murder trend with more than 800 last year. There were 467 homicides in Houston, which also has a similar population. And Philadelphia, with 1.6 million residents, had 559 murders.

Even some cities long considered among the safest in the country saw significant rises in violent crime. San Antonio, with a population of 1.6 million, had its deadliest year in over a decade with 128 homicides. And San Diego, with a population of 1.5 million, had close to 100 murders, doubling its total from the year before.

University of Miami sociology chair and criminologist Alex Piquero noted that if you toss out 2020 as an aberration, Miami-Dade's homicide rate is fairly consistent with previous years. Miami-Dade saw 241 homicides in 2019. Piquero said many big cities with high murder rates like Chicago and Philadelphia are just continuing a trend that began years ago.

"Historically, high immigrant cities tend to have lower homicide rates. They don't want to run afoul of the law, so they create buffers," said the UM professor. "And there's no doubt that getting guns off the street and violent people off the street had an effect on the low crime numbers."

Only eight law enforcement agencies in Miami-Dade have their own homicide bureaus. All but one of those agencies reported fewer murders in 2021 than the previous year. The lone exception was Hialeah, which had one more homicide in 2021 than the year before. Miami-Dade Police also cover far more homicides than just those in the unincorporated area. The largest agency in the county is also contracted to investigate murders for the 27 other police departments in Miami-Dade that don't have homicide bureaus.

Broken down by agencies, both Miami-Dade and Miami police investigated 9 percent fewer murders in 2021 than the year before. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which investigates highway killings, saw a 38 percent drop. Miami Gardens, Miami Beach, North Miami, North Miami Beach and Hialeah stayed about the same.

Chassidy Saunders, known to friends and family as the “TikTok Princess,” was only 6 years old when she was shot and killed in January during a birthday party in Miami.
Chassidy Saunders, known to friends and family as the “TikTok Princess,” was only 6 years old when she was shot and killed in January during a birthday party in Miami.  

The year began with 29 homicides in January, among them the death of 6-year-old "TikTok Princess" Chassidy Saunders. She lost her life on Jan. 16 during a triple-shooting at a birthday party in Miami. It continued a troubling trend of children felled by gunfire from the year before.

Over the next three months, 76 more people would be killed in Miami-Dade. One of them was a gregarious 3-year-old named Elijah LaFrance. He was shot and killed in front of the North Miami-Dade home his family had rented for Elijah's birthday party.

Elijah LaFrance, 3, lost his life to gunfire in April when he was shot and killed in front of a home in North Miami-Dade that his parents rented for his birthday party.
Elijah LaFrance, 3, lost his life to gunfire in April when he was shot and killed in front of a home in North Miami-Dade that his parents rented for his birthday party.  

Then came the back-to-back shootings that local law enforcement officials and experts say led to the end of a 16-month violent crime wave.

Late on a Friday night, at the start of Memorial Day Weekend, a vehicle pulled up just outside a rented party space in Miami's trendy Wynwood district and a gunman fired off more than three dozen rounds from a semiautomatic rifle. In less than 30 seconds, Quinton Valbrun, 25, was killed and six others were injured.

Only 26 hours later in early morning hours of Memorial Day in a northwestern pocket of Miami-Dade, dozens of people were clearing out of El Mula Banquet Hall when three masked gunmen jumped from a Nissan Pathfinder and fired off hundreds of rounds from semiautomatic rifles in a matter of seconds.

Shankquia Lechelle Peterson, 32, Desmond Owens and Clayton Dillard III, both 26, were killed. Twenty others were injured.

Police attributed much of the year's violence to escalating social media beefs over everything from girlfriends to new musical releases. Lethal disputes over controlling drug-dealing corners or territory seem rarer than in years past. Those were arguments that often erupted into violence, but that police had become more adept at dealing with.

Four days after the El Mula shooting, community leaders reeling from the bloodshed and pressured by anguished family members gathered at Miami-Dade Police headquarters in Doral and announced the creation of "Operation Summer Heat." Among those in attendance was County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle and the chiefs of several policing agencies across the county.

The group vowed a host of measures to stop the violence: more cops on the street, the sharing of information, a weapons and drug sweep. Perhaps most important, additional resources to investigate homicides and attorneys to help in the prosecution of them.

Over the next seven months there would be 112 more homicides. The murder rate had dropped by 36 percent. Miami-Dade Police attributed it to their strategic policing plan. During the same time period, police said, there were 3,741 arrests and 946 firearms were taken from the streets. Ramirez said with help from the State Attorney's Office, the clearance rate for last year's murders jumped drastically.

Most important, he said, the killing of children abated. Only four children under the age of 18 were shot and killed in the last seven months of 2021.

"Actually I was angry, very angry seeing our children being shot. The rhetoric on social media manifested its way onto the streets. A lot of these shootings were over minor things, like something on TikTok," the director said. "As a father and a police officer, it was infuriating. Something needed to be done."

Tangela Sears, an anti-gun violence activist whose son was killed in 2015, said catching and convicting shooters gives those affected by gun violence some hope.
Tangela Sears, an anti-gun violence activist whose son was killed in 2015, said catching and convicting shooters gives those affected by gun violence some hope.  

Tangela Sears, an anti-violence activist who lost a son to gun violence in 2015, said the importance of having an investigator from the State Attorney's office at homicide scenes and catching and convicting shooters, can't be understated.

"I won't say it brings closure to our pain," she said. "But it brings the justice we wish for. It gives you hope."

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