EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of a two part series that ran in the Panama City News Herald in February 2017. It was co-written with Eryn Dion.
PANAMA CITY — Unanswered questions haunted members of the LEAD Coalition on Jan. 5, the day after Owen Frazier was fatally shot. Only 15 days earlier, another young black man, Alton Mills, had also been killed.
They knew these kids. Naisy Dolar worked with Frazier at Gulf Coast State College, had even spoken to his mother, assuring her that “yes, he was showing up for class.” Matt Shack, who watched Mills grow up, didn’t believe it was possible he was involved with a gang.
These were good, kind kids, they insisted.
But the evidence of their drug dealing was all right there, chronicled by the two young men on their Facebook and Twitter accounts.
“They’re living double lives,” said Janice Lucas, executive director of the coalition, adding it’s contradictory but possible for Mills and Frazier to be both the good kids she knew and the people in their Facebook profiles.
The questions coalition members asked at that day’s meeting were about why. Why are these young men turning to dealing and violence?
Is it that guns are more prevalent? Manufacturing and gun sales both have grown exponentially in the last year, according to federal data, though the number of households with guns has declined.
Is it lack of work? The county’s unemployment rate has stayed at a low 5.3 percent in 2016, but the rate in Glenwood — where Mills lived — was a devastating 18.9 percent. Do area youth simply make more money in the streets than at jobs?
Is it statistics? Is it the disproportionate rate of suspensions of black students the Department of Education statistics show in Bay Schools? Do national trends of the absent black fathers or disproportionate discipline in the justice system for blacks cause it?
For a coalition that started in the wake of a string of homicides in 2014 with the goal of it never happening again, the biggest question they asked was: How do you stop it?
“We have to reach these kids,” Lucas said.
Every afternoon, Tim “Scooter” Brown and JC Carlisle set up orange plastic cones in a field outside Kingdom Agenda International ministry on the corner of East Avenue and 11th Street and get ready to coach whatever kid shows up that day. They run laps and learn about football, but what Brown, Carlisle and the people who help them are really trying to teach is a better way of life.
The streets are nothing like they used to be, says Brown, who grew up in Glenwood. People used to be more willing to settle a fight with their fists, not a gun. And people used to be more invested in the business of dealing drugs than the business of stealing drugs.
But social media has changed all that, he said.
“If you lose a fight, everyone in the world knows,” Brown said.
“So you gotta come back with revenge,” Carlisle added.
And it never, ever goes away. One year later, five years later, even 10 years later, Facebook will still remind you and everyone tagged in your post about “the memory,” asking if you want to share it with your friends.
It’s a place where with a few carefully chosen photos, a young man can craft the image of himself as a someone with street cred — an image his parents, the schools and the police are all unlikely to see. Flash some cash, maybe show a picture of smoking weed. Talk tough. Use a BB gun to make it look like you have a real gun, or steal one, like police say Datrion Hand stole the .40 caliber handgun used to shoot Frazier.
The image, whether real or bluster, becomes a challenge. It’s a challenge to oneself to live up to that character or be mocked, and it’s a challenge to others to one-up you.
“You can have a BB gun, not have a real gun, and go on social media and wave it around,” Brown said. “If anyone tries anything, they feel like you got a weapon. So if a person come at you anyway, and they got a weapon, they’re going to feel like they have to use it first.”
It also makes you a target, Brown said.
Monitoring that kind of online activity is all but impossible.
“I don’t have this room full of people to sit there and sift through social media and all that looking” for suspicious activity, Panama City Police Chief Scott Ervin said recently. “There are 160,000 residents in Bay County alone. There is no way we could monitor everybody’s Facebook chat to try to find something. That’s unfathomable, and I don’t think there is a realistic expectation of that.”
Even if the department had the resources and desire to monitor for public posts advertising drug deals, whether they would be able to translate them to legal action is still unclear. Local attorney Alvin Peters called it “the cutting edge” of the law.
“There’s no clear indication of who posted it, and so as far as I know, the courts are not accepting Facebook as a reliable basis for probable cause,” Peters said. “Obviously, you can use it for investigative basis, but I don’t see it being used to secure probable cause without a reliable witness.”
As Ervin puts it, an officer can see a photo on Facebook and say, based on his training, “That looks like marijuana.” But “there’s a lot of gray area,” and the officer still would have to do more leg work to prove probable cause.
It also isn’t what the police department — which has yet to recover from pre-recession staffing levels — focuses on.
“Ninety-nine point nine percent of what we do is we respond to things that have occurred,” Ervin said. “Prevention starts at the individual level, and that’s everything from, as a child growing up, those people that are responsible for care of the child teaching them right from wrong, helping them learn how to make good decisions. And then of course the individual, as they grow up and become adults, they have to make good choices, and they are accountable to do that. They have to make that determination not to be involved in criminal activity.”
In the meantime, he said his department is out there working every crime, not picking and choosing what to investigate, but taking all cases seriously. They have good relationships in all of the communities involved in the recent violence, he said, working to develop leads and chase all of them down.
And his department, he said, will never give up on finding justice for homicide victims.
But Robert Stewart, a local DJ, convicted felon and Mills’ cousin, feels the police department’s efforts aren’t enough.
The way he sees it, the police enforce a double standard, and by putting so much emphasis on treating every crime equally, they miss the important crimes.
He used a neighborhood gathering called “Chunky Sunday” as an example. For a while, Glenwood residents tried to have a Sunday dinner at a city park with free food, and he would DJ the event. But, he said, neighbors would complain it was too loud, and the police would show up and try to kick them out for drinking, which isn’t allowed in the park.
But in that case, Stewart reasoned, shouldn’t people playing Pokemon Go this past summer have been kicked out of the marina and parks after sunset? (Players occasionally were asked to leave public places.) Some of them were drinking, he said, but no — the police drove through the marina playing the Pokemon theme song some nights.
It’s not just the police he has an issue with. He said the Downtown North Community Redevelopment Agency’s (CRA) recent decision to tear down the Old Lee’s Motel was a real shame. It put people out of their homes, he said, adding there were better ways to spend the money in the community.
“Act like you care,” he said. “I don’t care if it’s fake; at least pretend you care. Put on a puppet show. Do it for politics, win out votes, whatever. Act like you care. Do something.”
The police say they have to enforce all laws equally, and the CRA officials say opening up the space to new development will benefit the community.
But Stewart says they all can do better, and that the burden is on the department and city to rebuilt trust.
“They’re growing up and they hear, ‘Oh, the police’ and run,” Stewart said. “Change that image. When you’re rolling through Foxwood two cars deep, don’t jump out and harass people. Start handing out suckers and fake handcuffs and stickers or fake badges. Play tag with the kids and run around in the street with them. … Play with my kid. Then, what does the older generation do? They think you’re not so bad. I ain’t gonna give them a hard time next time.”
“I worry about my son all the time,” Brown said. “And I worry because of society. As a black kid, you got to understand there are so many negative things that are going to be said; there are so many negative things out there.”
For example, he said his son always hears about black-on-black crime rates, which Brown said is “a downgrade to our race.” But what his son doesn’t hear, because people don’t talk about it, is that in the 2013 FBI crime data, there were 2,509 white-on-white murders, a little higher than the 2,245 black-on-black murders.
Teaching a child right from wrong starts at home, he said. He’s committed to being a father that will be there for both his kids and the neighborhood kids. Many years ago, he coached Mills on the basketball court, and when Mills started to walk away, he let him leave.
That’s not happening again.
He says he or someone from the ministry will be there every night at the corner of 11th and East, ready to help kids. For the older ones, it might be too late, he said, but he’ll try to get them while they are young and keep them, so they don’t feel the need to go across the street to one of many spots a 13-year-old boy can buy a bag of weed to sell for a quick profit. He and his team at Stop the Violence, many convicted felons who come from poverty and understand these kids, will find a way to turn their lights back on if the power gets cut.
The dealers across the street “won’t scare them off,” he said, and he doesn’t want kids in jail or at the rehab clinic across the way.
Stewart is going to try to organize community events to give the children something to do. The pastors in the black community have been using their pulpit to try to reach the youth. The colleges, particularly Gulf Coast, are trying to build up their workforce development programs to give young men other options. The LEAD Coalition is continuing its regular dialogue and pushing the Panama City Commission to hire more police officers next year and parents to check up on their children’s social media accounts. They’re also talking about starting a new community liaison program to improve relations between neighborhoods and the police.
“There’s a unity in the streets now,” Stewart said, a step in the right direction. And that unity is being turned toward the living.
It’s too late for Alton Mills, but not for his younger brother. His family is eyeing a safer place for him to be. Stewart is eyeing his every move, calling him frequently, hoping the growing unity will take root.
“There is always hope,” Stewart said. “That’s my lil’ cousin.”