Fourteen Years Gone

Jerrod Miller

Fourteen years ago yesterday, Jerrod Miller, 16, was shot and killed outside of the Delray Full Service Center by a rookie Delray Beach police officer.

Jerrod was shot exactly 7 years before Trayvon Martin, 17, was killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford, Florida sparking a national conversation that still boils.

In the ensuing years, we’ve experienced countless stories that are eerily similar.

I’m not sure how many people are thinking of Jerrod Miller these days in Delray, but I am. I think about him all the time.

I know a few police officers are thinking about him too because I got a text from one of them. I used to get a lot more—time passes I suppose.

When the shooting happened, we heard over and over again how Delray would never be the same and I suppose in some ways that is true. If you were there, if you were his brother, father, grandmother, relative, friend or teacher you most certainly were changed by what happened.

But time marches on, relentlessly. And so does life. It’s a cliché sure, but reality too.

Today, most people probably don’t know what happened in a breeze way at a school that now serves as an adult education center. Back in those days, it was an alternative school.

But I remember and I will never forget. That’s why I am writing this today…a very small way to keep a memory alive.

We’ve lost a lot of young men and women to gunfire in the 14 years since we lost Jerrod.

That’s a real national emergency if you ask me.

But I’m afraid we are becoming immune. I fear that our hearts are hardening.

I heard about a fatal shooting in Delray a few weeks back, but I don’t remember seeing much on the news and nobody I knew really talked about it. Maybe we’ve become numb to violence. I sure hope not.

Because the day we become numb to violence is the day we become untethered from our humanity.

 

 

 

 

 

13 Years

Jerrod Miller

Thirteen years ago today, Jerrod Miller, 16, was shot and killed outside of the Delray Full Service Center by a rookie Delray Beach police officer.

Jerrod was killed exactly 7 years to the day before Trayvon Martin, 17, was killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford, Florida sparking a national conversation that still boils.

In the ensuing years, we’ve read about Freddie Gray, Ferguson, Missouri and a whole slew of incidents that have engulfed young men of color, police departments, communities, schools and our nation’s soul.

I’m not sure how many people are thinking of Jerrod Miller today in Delray Beach where we seem to be focused on gutter politics and whether this year’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, a 50 year tradition will be the last because of a few myopic elected officials who don’t understand what it means to be a steward.

All of those things are important—who serves in office and whether community traditions continue or are shooed way.

But they also pale when viewed through the prism of a basic question; whether we are a good place for children and families to live.

Jerrod was my daughter’s age in 2005. I think of that often, every time I see my first born and marvel at the young woman she has become. She’s a teacher now, but back then she was a student at Atlantic High School and the kids were shaken about what happened the night Jerrod was shot. Samantha was given the opportunity to grow up, go to college and launch a career. Jerrod didn’t have that opportunity. And I think about him all the time.

For 13 years, I have had recurring dreams about a young man I never knew in life. I saw him only once—in a casket, at his funeral—at an 7th Day Adventist Church in our northwest neighborhood. I met and admired his pastor. I knew his father—not the biological opportunist who showed up after the shooting, but the man who Jerrod knew as his dad.  And I met his grandmother who sat quietly with us in a  room at Old School Square during our race relations workshops.

Ironically, I was at Mar-a-Lago, at a charity fundraiser the night of the shooting. I had no clue that life would change for so many with a middle of the night phone call that informed me of the news.

When police shootings occur, a dynamic occurs—a vortex of media, lawyers, union reps, police investigators, prosecutors, media, activists, hate mail, threats, anger, anxiety and crushing sadness.

Absolutely crushing sadness.

As a mayor, you become isolated—from your colleagues on the commission and from everyone really. It’s a lonely place and there is no playbook to reference.

I think of that lonely place when I see things happen—in places like Ferguson, Baltimore and yes Parkland because I know there’s hurting families, anxious policymakers and sad police officers.

In my case, I was walled off from the officer because of the investigation but I felt for him and his family. I tried not to pass judgment, I tried to think of him as a 23 year-old man. And when my son hit that age, I realized just how young that is. Jerrod was shot while allegedly driving erratically near a school dance. It all happened in a matter of seconds.

I’ve always been a fan of the Delray Beach Police Department and public safety professionals in general. I rode with them as a young reporter, got to know them as people and marveled at the complexity of their jobs and how well they performed. There is no Delray Beach as we know it, without their stellar work. They made it safe to live, work and play here but that challenge is ongoing and we must strive to be the kind of city that protects those who protect and serve us. So when the narrative emerged after the shooting of a rogue police department, I knew from personal experience that it wasn’t true. Of course, there was a fraught history–and that matters. Like America itself, Delray has struggled with race. But we were hard at work on the issue. We may have been imperfect, slow at times, blind to things but there were sincere efforts in our city to bridge the divide–to talk, engage and work together. Bridges had been built, relationships had formed and they were real and we would rely on them in the tough days ahead.

I also felt deeply for the family, friends and teachers who were shocked by the shooting.

We were isolated from the family as a result of the investigation, the inevitable litigation and other factors including an inquest, a rare event that was ordered in the case. I did spend time with several of Jerrod’s teachers who came to see me racked with emotion. We also spent a lot of time in the community answering questions, listening and praying.

But all during this time I was also thinking about another young man—Sherrod, Jerrod’s twin brother.

I asked  officers and community members for any information on him. I was told he was devastated and angry. Who could fault him. I’m sure there was confusion too.

I never did get to connect with Sherrod at the time. But I never stopped thinking about him.

I was saddened to read newspaper headlines a few years later detailing trouble that he had found.

He ended up doing time.

But a few years ago, he re-emerged. I got a call from an officer/friend who said Sherrod wanted to meet me and a few other  police officers including the chief. He wanted to see us. He had something to say.

And so we met, quietly in an office at City Hall. I was nervous about the meeting but anxious to see him too.

I’ve never written about this part of the story before but it’s important to share.

When Sherrod walked in the first thing you noticed was his size—6’5” and strong.

He was heavily tattooed and clearly someone who had seen a lot in his short life.  And yet there was something about him too that I just can’t describe–maybe the word is vulnerable.

When he saw us, the emotions were raw. He shook hands with all of us but it quickly fell into an embrace and a few tears.

It was very powerful.

For all of us.

Seasoned police officers who have seen it all and then some. Officers who had been called to the scene 13 years ago and were  very moved by what they saw.

We talked and talked some more. A lot poured out. Prison. Anger. Anger at Delray police. The searing pain of losing a brother. A twin; someone who feels a part of you. And a realization that the cycle has to stop. If at all possible, the anger had to be let go. Sherrod wanted to apologize to us, for things he had said and done. We told him it was OK and not necessary. We just wanted him to live a decent life. We were sorry that we didn’t help him and he needed a lot of help.

We vowed to help Sherrod get started again.  And we did. A job. Support. Advice.

I’d like to say that we all grew close. For awhile we texted, his preferred method of communication– with me anyway. Then the texts bounced back. His number must have changed.

And we lost touch.

He got arrested again. You can look up the details.

I keep tabs via the Internet.

On this, a sad anniversary, I pray he finds peace. I pray we all do.

I share these stories on the anniversary because I believe that it’s important that others know what happened on Feb. 26, 2005 in the village by the sea.

At the time, many felt Delray would never be the same. That’s how big this was. But I find we move on, maybe not the families, maybe not the direct participants, but society moves on.

There have been other violent deaths in Delray since. There have been young people gunned down by other young people right here in our community. And life goes on, as I suppose it should and must.

But my hope is that with every loss we would learn something that makes us better people and a better, closer community.

Until that happens, we will continue to fray–inch by inch– until  eventually we break.

 

 

Parkland

Editor’s note: The sadness in South Florida is palpable. We watched coverage of funeral services in Boca Raton and Parkland filled with the tears of parents, students, teachers and friends left grief stricken. We are all touched and connected in more ways than we know. On our social media feeds we saw people we knew whose children were friends with those lost in the mass shooting. A man I used to coach in Little League many, many years ago, shared his grief over losing a friend of his son that he once coached. The circle. Connections. Humanity. We hope we find ways to act and to connect. I hope this is the tipping point. The students left behind at Douglas High are resolved to make lasting and positive change. I wouldn’t bet against them.

When my daughter told us she wanted to be a teacher we were proud and delighted.

We are a family that cherishes education—especially public education.

Our daughter Sam went to public elementary schools, a private middle school in Delray that we felt would help her with a learning disability and graduated from Atlantic High School. She went to Palm Beach State College and earned an associate’s degree before heading off to the University of South Florida to study Exceptional Student Education.

USF has a great program because Sam spent a whole lot of time in the classroom working with ESE students before she was hired to teach in Hillsborough County. She started her career with a fair amount of experience and exposure as a result of internships and student teaching. She knew what she was signing up for. And as a student who overcame a learning disability, she had the heart for students who are exceptional.

I’m not sure that our family knew as much as she did despite our long term involvement in education as volunteers and parents.

I never thought that teaching was a dangerous profession. I knew it was a difficult and stressful job, but I never felt that my daughter would be in danger working in a public school.

How naïve, I was.

Although it shouldn’t be considered dangerous and I don’t think she’s unsafe, we are now well aware that there are dangers.

School shootings—mass shootings—massacres have been a part of our national conversation since Columbine in 1999.

“How Many Times”, blared the headline in the New York Post just above a picture of a crying mother and her daughter outside of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in picturesque and upscale Parkland where 17 people were murdered by a deranged former student carrying an AR-15 assault rifle.

Since Sandy Hook in December 2012 (still the worse mass school shooting in U.S. history with 20 dead) there have been 273 school shootings in America. Twelve of those shootings are considered “mass” events. Overall, 473 people have been shot and 112 people have been killed.

According to the New York Times there are 7 school shooting incidents on average every month in America.

So yes, I now think my daughter has a dangerous job as well as a difficult job.

When I was a kid, we used to drill for a nuclear war by hiding under our desks. We didn’t really know what we were doing and I don’t remember a lot of worries about being bombed. Maybe my teachers were scared but I didn’t pick up on it.

A few years back, teachers would prep for tornados in areas prone to those, but that has morphed into active shooter drills all over the country.

By all accounts, the students and teachers at Douglas High were aware of and prepared for a shooting. They had drilled. They had talked about being vigilant and paying attention to students making threats. But it’s hard to prepare for someone coming at you with a lot of ammunition and a weapon that is lethal.

 

Jim Cavanaugh — a former ATF agent who is an MSNBC law-enforcement expert — points out that if someone can walk across your parking lot with a long gun and enter your school or business, “You don’t have security.” I get that. But how many places in America are prepared for that scenario and what would we be giving up if somehow we were?

Being a parent these days is a nerve wracking endeavor.

I remember talking to my daughter about roofies (date rape drugs), drinking and driving, peer pressure, inappropriate behavior and a whole host of other things awaiting her out there.

For years, we slept with one eye open, waiting for our children to come home at curfew.

But I thought she would be safe teaching young children in a cute little elementary school in Tampa.

When you talk to teachers—you hear stories. Stories about community and family dysfunction—violence, abuse, drugs, alcohol, financial stress, neglect.

When I was involved with Dare 2 Be Great, a charitable organization that gave scholarships to Delray children we heard a litany of stories during our interviews. We kept tissues close by because what our children go through breaks your heart. Right down the street from $30 hamburgers and expensive real estate are countless stories of neglect and violence.

And we know that society doesn’t stop at the doors of our schools. We also know that teachers and support staff provide love, attention, social services, an ear, nutrition and even clothing to the children they work with every day.

I don’t see answers coming from Washington. Forget gun control. It has been made an all or nothing argument. If you favor restrictions on assault weapons and background checks on sales you are against the Second Amendment.

I tell some of my friends who lean more conservative than I ever will, that I support the right to bear arms, I just don’t think there is any need to have military grade weapons with more firepower than our Police Department possesses or that people with histories of mental illness or violence should have them.

Most of my conservative friends get that. Most of them agree, but Congress can’t act.

Did they address “bump stocks” after Las Vegas? Did anything meaningful happen nationally after Sandy Hook?

Congress is a joke. The Founding Fathers would be ashamed. They can’t solve a problem or seize an opportunity and that’s on us. We stand for what we tolerate. And we tolerate a ridiculously partisan system awash in special interest cash. I think partisanship that values victories over the opposition is unpatriotic. It’s a disgusting disgrace.

I think most people agree since Congress has approval ratings in the single digits. I’d like to know who the 9 percent of Americans that think they are doing a good job are.

I know a few members of Congress and they don’t think the House or Senate works.

But we stand for it.

So I think the answers can be found locally. On the city and county level.

We can prepare and we can drill and we should. We can add metal detectors and security guards and we should. We can take a look at our mental health services and rush to bring more social services to those who need it. And we should.

But there’s something fundamental happening here.

In our society.

In our homes.

In our neighborhoods.

On social media. On cable TV and on the Internet.

There’s something that our humanity has to address.

Until then, our sons and daughters, our teachers, administrators, support staff and everyone in between—including concert goers at a Country Music Festival are at risk.

We are not safe.

And dammit, we should be.

To Walk In Their Shoes

policememorial

Imagine this job description.
You wake up, get dressed, say goodbye to your family and you’re really not sure you will make it home without getting in a fight, encountering the most dangerous people imaginable, getting sued, videotaped or even shot and killed.
Many people respect what you do, but others despise you just because of your uniform.
You work holidays, weekends, midnight shifts… your every move and action scrutinized. Make a mistake (or even if you don’t) and people might get hurt or killed.
The clothes you wear to work can be uncomfortable, bulky and hot.  People can’t help but stare wherever you go. You can’t have a quiet lunch or walk into a store without drawing attention–sometimes welcome, sometimes not.
You do this for a grand a week before taxes, on average. And over the years you might get injured or watch your body break down from the nature of the work. Emotionally you also pay a price. Your gig is stressful, you see things most people never have to see.
You do get to retire in 20 or 30 years, when you’re relatively young and you do get a pension in most cases. But then again you find that many begrudge your pension and you’ll find that in most cases you will have to find work because while a pension is a good thing for most it’s not enough to make ends meet.
You are a police officer.
 And some days are worse than others. Yesterday was one of the bad days. A very bad day.
Two officers were lost in Orlando Monday.
Words can’t describe how horrible that is.
They were doing their jobs and now they’re gone.
An Orlando police sergeant was shot and killed after approaching a suspect wanted for questioning in the murder of his pregnant ex-girlfriend, and a second law enforcement officer was killed in a motorcycle crash while responding to a massive manhunt for the suspect.
Master Sgt. Debra Clayton, 42, was killed outside a Wal-Mart and Orange County Sheriff’s Office Deputy First Class Norman Lewis was killed in a crash while responding to a manhunt for the suspect.
Sgt Clayton was only 42 years old. She was a highly respected officer, a mentor to kids, a wife and a mother. It’s a huge loss.
Deputy Lewis was only 35, with 11 years on the job. He was a former UCF football player; described as a gentle giant by colleagues. He was struck by a van while on his motorcycle responding to the manhunt.
I’ve known many officers, most of them from Delray Beach. I’ve ridden with them, interviewed them, negotiated with them, been friends with them and admired them.
I’ve seen them work some miracles in neighborhoods and make our city safe for investment. It wasn’t always so. Delray was a risky bet.
Truth is, there would have been no Delray rebirth without our Police Department. 
But for all they’ve done their job just doesn’t get easier. In fact, it gets more and more complex. And dangerous too.
The crime and violence persists, so does the abuse they witness– physical abuse and drug abuse. They have a very hard job.  And their bad days–and yesterday was a horrible day–are simply beyond description. 
Pray for their safety. And for ours. 

A Reminder Of Who We Are

priorities

One of my favorite definitions of leadership is that a leader constantly reminds us of who we are.
By that definition, negativity cannot be leadership because most people, most communities and most businesses are not malevolent.

We have to appeal to our better angels if we are going to solve problems and progress.
Last Thursday, there were three shootings within an hour during the middle of the day in Delray Beach. The shootings happened a few blocks from an international tennis tournament and prompted the closing of a park and the lockdown of a neighborhood. A 19 year old man was injured and a 30 year old man– a father and a recently hired city employee was killed.
When this level of violence strikes a community it exacts a toll: I live across the street from the park that was closed. Granted that street is Lake Ida Road, a heavily travelled four lane road so it doesn’t feel quite so close… but it is–we are all knit together in Delray and my neighbors reacted with expressions of fear.
“Are we safe?”, they asked.
“I have kids, this was the middle of the day, what’s going on here?”
What’s going on here is real life.
We have a wonderful city and it has come a long way but we have challenges and issues far greater than traffic or whether putting an IPic and 400 plus jobs downtown is good or bad.

We have serious problems that far surpass whether “Uptown Delray”– a huge investment slated for West Atlantic Avenue– is a few parking spaces deficient under the old rules. The Beach Area Master Plan is an opportunity not a problem and so is the Arts Warehouse and the revitalization of Old School Square Park.
So what are the problems?
There’s a bad batch of heroin going around the city as we speak and a whopping 55 people have overdosed on heroin in 2016 and it’s early in the year folks.
Three shootings in a day is a problem, even if it is traced to a Hatfield McCoy like family feud. You may not be a Hatfield and you may not be a McCoy but if bullets are flying you could be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
So leadership has to remind us who we really are.
We have achieved great things in this town. Once unsafe neighborhoods have been made safe, a once dormant downtown is now a national attraction (Florida’s new ‘sweet spot’ says the Wall Street Journal) and less high profile efforts including the Campaign for Grade Level Reading are working–test scores are up.
So we know how to solve problems in this city. We know how to get things done.
We know how to make our streets safer and fortunately we are blessed with a very solid police department.
We also know how to work together.
We are a caring and compassionate community when it counts.
Leadership reminds us who we are.
There’s a lot of talk about what makes a village a village. And I believe it’s how we treat each other. Not during the good times, but during the trying times.
This is a trying time for our Police Department and for many families struggling with violence, loss and addiction.
What’s needed is leadership, compassion, understanding, dialogue, smart strategy and execution.
What’s also needed is perspective and prioritization.
Your biggest problem is not that $700 million wants to be invested in your city. Sure getting it right is important. Make sure the projects follow the rules and are well designed and that the uses make sense. Work with people, if they refuse kick them to the curb. But the good ones will work with you. The good ones will listen and adjust and if it improves their projects it’s what we call “win win”. Seek win win wherever possible and it’s almost always possible.
We have to get to the truly big stuff. People are dying out there.
They need our help to stop the violence and overcome addiction.

#Justice 4 Corey

I did not know Corey Jones.
But I know many people who knew him and loved him. They say he was an extraordinary young man.
Corey’s friends and family will seek justice for Corey who was shot and killed by a Palm Beach Gardens police officer on the side of I-95 a few weeks back.
Justice,  memories and love.. that’s all that’s left.
There’s a line in the Academy award winning film “Unforgiven” that comes to mind. The movie was a meditation on violence and the character played by Clint Eastwood wrestled with his past as a particularly murderous gunman.
“It’s a hell of a thing, killin’ a man. Take away all he’s got, and all he’s ever gonna have.”
Indeed. And it happens all too often in our world.
Marc Arthur Barreau, a 29 year old, father of a six year old was gunned down outside an apartment complex around the same time Corey lost his life.

He was a personal trainer at PurLife in downtown Delray. And like Corey, who worked for the Delray Beach Housing Authority, Art was beloved by those who knew him.
To date there have been 76 murders in Palm Beach County this year. That number ought to give us pause.
But for the most part it never does. Things don’t seem to change.
Perhaps they should.
I’m not sure what it will take and maybe there is no answer but it seems that we should be doing….something.
We are too violent. Too angry. There is too much hate and anger in our society and in our community.
We have become too uncaring and too willing to move on.
We need more conversation. More action. More humanity and empathy. More understanding and a whole lot more love.
We are losing too many. It’s that simple.