The Sunday school teachers at New Beginning Missionary Baptist Church in Miami Gardens are well-versed in Biblical tales such as the Good Samaritan or Noah’s Ark.
But this year, a police officer will preach to the youngest members of the flock, telling them about a contemporary version of the Golden Rule: to respect their neighbors and their neighborhood, and to report wrongdoing rather than uphold the informal no-snitching code.
In a city that saw 25 people killed last year — grandfathers, mothers, fathers, a college-bound freshman — city leaders and community elders have not only been grappling with how to stem the violence, but how to shift a pervasive culture of not cooperating with police.
So far, this year, three people have been killed in Miami Gardens — a man killed on New Year’s Day, a 15-year-old boy who was shot multiple times and a man killed Sunday night after a Super Bowl party.
At New Beginning, a working class congregation, the head pastor is hoping to start small, with a monthly visit from a Miami Gardens police officer.
“It is very necessary,” said senior pastor Eric Readon, of his nontraditional approach. “It’s not just about preaching Jesus, we need to change our methods to get to these kids. We need to save them before they go in the wrong direction.”
Even as overall crime rates have steadily declined in Miami-Dade County’s third largest city — and Florida’s largest predominately black city —Miami Gardens is burdened with a high murder rate per capita.
In the past five years, Miami Gardens has ranked among the top Miami-Dade cities with the highest murder rates per 100,000 residents. In 2011, the city was second in murders per capita in the county, with 24 murders. First was nearby Opa-locka, according to statistics compiled by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. By comparison, Hialeah, which is roughly double the size of Miami Gardens’ population of 110,000, had four murders in 2011 and seven in 2012, according to records.
Miami Gardens Mayor Oliver Gilbert, a lifelong resident, said his city, as with many communities, is not immune to crime.
“We won’t allow an entire community of people to be identified by the horrible actions of a small minority of people,” said Gilbert. “Most of the people in Miami Gardens are great decent people. This isn’t a bad area because some bad things happen here.”
And so clergy members called for an end to the violence at a press conference, police hosted meetings with local crime watch groups and at an all-night prayer vigil last month, pastors and city leaders memorialized the victims killed in the city last year.
Among the casualties:
An eight-month pregnant mother who succumbed to her injuries after being shot on her boyfriend’s porch. The unborn baby did not survive.
A Carol City high school football player who was gunned down while he sat in a car in front of his friend’s house. On the same day, blocks away, a 26-year old woman was walking on the sidewalk when she was approached from behind and was shot several times in the head and torso.
A local car wash owner was killed while trying to stop a robbery; a corrections officer was shot dead in front of his home.
Lost are the days when neighbors bought into the idea, “I am my brother’s keeper,” said Bishop Sylvester Sampson, whose son-in-law, Andrew Johnson, the corrections officer, was fatally shot near Northwest 211th Street and Northwest 27th Avenue in his driveway.
“The parents aren’t being parents, the kids are running their parents. We have kids having kids. As a community, we need to tighten up,” said Sampson, founder of Razor Sharp Ministries in Liberty City.
Police say they are frustrated over the lost lives, but they say the killings are not predictable crimes.
“If a person wants to go out and deliberately kill somebody ... unless you have that police officer right there at that moment to intervene, you’re not going to stop that. It’s going to occur,” said Miami Gardens Police Chief Matthew Boyd.
Boyd said headlines of killings and shootings in Miami Gardens overshadow the gains his department has made since the city established its police department in 2007. In fact, violent crimes such as robberies and sexual assaults have actually declined in 2012, according to police statistics.
“In large part, the residents in this city have become a lot safer and we need to get that word out,” said Deputy Police Chief Paul Miller. “Crime has been reduced as a result of this police department.’’
Days after Johnson’s murder , the corrections officer’s wife, Ebony Sampson, was frustrated that no witnesses came forward.
“People are scared to talk, they don’t want to become a target, it’s crazy,” she said.
Police acknowledge investigations are often hampered by a no-snitch culture that frequently vexes law enforcement.
As an example, Boyd recalls a shooting at Bunche Park in late 2011. During an early evening peewee football game practice, a Chevrolet Impala pulled up and men jumped out of the back seat firing into the crowd. Four people, including an 11-year-old boy, were shot at the park. They all survived.
Boyd said there was a crowd of about 200 people that night, yet hardly anyone stepped forward with any information about the shooters.
“When we went to ask them did anybody see anything, not a thing was said. They were like, ‘No we didn’t see anything.’ And all those people were right there,” he said.
Residents and city officials point to several reasons for the violence, none of which are specific to Miami Gardens. One council member put the blame on neighborhood gangs. Others say inadequate education, misguided youth, community apathy and a breakdown of the black family structure have contributed to the problem.
Miami Gardens elected officials regularly address residents from the dais at council meetings about steps they’re taking to improve the quality of life in the city.
For a while, Miami Gardens banned guns in public parks. Then, the state Legislature in 2011 passed a law that fined any city official who tried to enforce a local gun ordinance, effectively eliminating Miami Gardens’ ban on guns in public parks.
The state law so incensed Miami Gardens elected officials that they refused to take their rule off the books. The move was mostly symbolic since the city will not enforce its ordinance.
At a recent council meeting, Vice Mayor Lisa Davis co-sponsored a resolution to support a ban on assault rifles and automatic weapons.
“I don’t want to see an increase in murders in our community. It’s time for us to take a stand,” Davis said.
Residents agree it will take more than the politicians to make a difference.
“I don’t know a lot about politicians, but we got to get the community together and get on one accord,” said resident Rico Johnson.
Not too long ago, Readon, the pastor at New Beginning, attended the funeral of one of his parishioners, Errold Peart.
Peart, a beloved member of the Miami Gardens community, owned a popular car wash. When he noticed a pair of young men trying to rob a customer, Peart intervened. The robbers fatally shot him instead.
At Peart’s funeral in December, more that 200 people attended. One by one, they filed down the center aisle of the church where they said their final goodbyes to him. Peart’s son, Dameion, said his father died trying to do the right thing. He hopes other will follow.
“You can’t blame the police,” he said. “They can only do so much. I think the community needs to step up. Even if it’s just to call the police when they see someone suspicious. The community needs to up the pressure.”
On New Year’s Day, Robert Brothers, 41, was shot to death blocks away from his Miami Gardens home. Weeks later, Landon Kinsey, a 15-year-old Miami Carol City student, was shot multiple times on his way to a friend’s house. He died.
On Sunday night, after a Super Bowl party, three people were shot in the city, one fatally. Police had not released the details as of late Monday afternoon.
Padra Kinsey, who buried her nephew Landon on Saturday, said she no longer wants to live in the city.
“This community feels like a graveyard,” she said. “We have crime that’s happening in bright day light and no one sees a thing.”