Points of concern following the sheriff’s April 7 press conference

Marion County Sheriff Billy Woods speaks about the arrest of two juveniles for the murders of three teenagers in the Ocala National Forest during a press conference at the Marion County Sheriff’s Office i n Ocala, Fla. on Friday, April 7, 2023. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2023.

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Posted April 12, 2023 | Ocala Gazette Editorial Board

On April 7, Marion County Sheriff Billy Woods led an at-times emotional press conference on an unprecedented community horror: three local teens who were allegedly shot to death by three other local youngsters.

As we all consider how something like this could happen here and what we can do to prevent an unspeakable repeat, there are a few points we’d like to make, mainly about the roles not just of the sheriff’s office but this newspaper as well.

But first, we as a community must give credit to those investigators from numerous agencies who worked tirelessly to quickly identify and apprehend the three suspects. From the underwater dive team members who found phones left in a murky pond and the technicians who managed to extract key evidence from the ruined devices to the detectives and deputies who knocked on doors and consoled grieving families to residents who provided essential information, we thank you all.

At the press conference, Woods was doing all the talking, framing the tragedy and the various elements leading up to the murder spree as he saw fit. He went beyond the facts of the case and ventured into political areas such as the Second Amendment, deficiencies he saw with the local school district, and criticism of the media.

Interestingly, the one entity he did not point a finger of blame at was his own agency, which is responsible for maintaining safety in Marion County.

On local gangs and why they are getting worse

In early 2021, editors at the fledgling “Gazette’’ noted that young Black males here were being shot, and dying, at an alarming rate. To date, we count at least 12 Black teens who have died in what bears the hallmarks of gang-related activity.

Woods’ office was dismissive then of the suggestion of gangs, while the newly appointed chief of the Ocala Police Department, Michael Balken, was saying, “Yes, we have a gang problem.”

Woods eventually acknowledged we have gangs but “not bad ones as they have in other communities.” By June 2021, we were reporting more dead teens, and the sheriff was still discounting the threat of gangs.

Fast forward to the present. Three teenagers have been killed, three other young people are behind bars accused of their murders, and the sheriff is attributing all of the bloodshed to gangs, actual or “wannabes.’

As we sort out how this happened, it’s fair to ask if the sheriff’s belated public recognition of the level of gang activity has been a contributing factor to its growth?

Here’s what the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance says about the importance of early intervention: “In the earliest stages of planning and analysis for a gang suppression effort, law enforcement officials must articulate the nature and scope of the community’s gang problem. In many communities—particularly those that have little experience with gangs—the first reason for conducting a thorough assessment of the problem is to overcome the commonly encountered denial that criminal gangs even exist.”

Every resource manual we can find on the subject recommends law enforcement share with the community how to identify gangs and create a strategy for combating them. Why? Because law enforcement alone can’t defeat the threat. In many other communities, agencies partner with law enforcement to share information relevant to the local threat and deliver it through schools and to parents so that they could be alert to look for signs.

At his press conference, Woods took a different tact. He placed the blame for the escalation in violent juvenile gang activity at the feet of an erstwhile partner agency: Marion County Public Schools.

Anyone who has attended any school board meeting has seen the number of students expelled for bad behavior as well as the more than $4 million the district spends each year in alternative placement in private institutions for kids with behavioral issues.

Mind you, none of the three recent victims were shot on a school campus. The murders all happened outside the school district’s jurisdiction and in the sheriff’s area of responsibility.

We urge the sheriff to become a stronger partner with our school district and our parents. Instead of blaming every other element of society, own your piece of this crisis. Tell us how gangs can be recognized, how we can detect early warning signs, and provide realistic resources, not just tough-sounding soundbites, to help turn the tide.

Counterproductive juvenile justice policy

While he did not name-check the ‘’Gazette,’’ Woods at the press conference took aim at “a particular’’ media outlet that has criticized him before for publishing minor suspects’ arrest information, including names and arrest photos, on his agency’s popular social media platforms.

Allow us to clarify our position: There are legitimate public safety reasons for publishing the photo of a minor and doing so to ask the community’s help in apprehending a dangerous murder suspect is one of them. Our policy, to wait to see if the arrested young person is charged as an adult, is not so absolute as to blindly abandon reason and logic. For example, according to the sheriff’s office, of the 16 suspects whose arrest photos they posted last year only six ultimately were charged as adults.

But Woods’ position goes further. As he said during the press conference, he’ll publish photos of minors arrested for lesser offenses such as property crimes. The sheriff says he does this so “parents know who their kids should and should not hang out with.”

He described the practice as “lawful,” but that just means there is no law preventing him from sharing what is a public record. No legal authority requires or even encourages the sheriff to share this information on his social media platforms.

Again, Woods’ strategy goes against established “best practices’’ for handling juveniles that aim to correct bad behavior and, hopefully, steer teens to a better life. Numerous peer-reviewed studies reject the sheriff’s reasoning that communicating to the public that a particular youth should not be included in society is detrimental to efforts to rehabilitate them.

One 2011 study by Purdue University found that if a youth feels ostracized, or that there is little hope for re-inclusion, or that they have little control over their lives, they may “resort to … aggression.”

“At some point, they stop worrying about being liked, and they just want to be noticed,” said Kipling D. Williams, a professor of psychological sciences involved with the study.

Following that reasoning, having their name and photo prominently displayed on the sheriff’s Facebook page would be just the kind of negative notoriety the teen is seeking.

Sadly, the sheriff’s practices also undermine the efforts of Black pastors and the OPD who have conducted community meetings and outreach events to encourage those in the neighborhood to speak up when they know details that could help solve a crime.

The mothers of two of the recent murder suspects waived their minor sons’ rights to legal counsel before their sons confessed. A short time later, the sheriff’s office paraded their sons in handcuffs, one without the dignity of being fully clothed, in a classic “perp walk.’’

Yes, other mothers took note of how the agency treated the suspects even after their families cooperated with law enforcement.

The media’s role in holding the sheriff accountable

Woods proclaimed at the press conference that some in the media, (spoiler alert: he’s referring to the “Gazette”), seek to somehow minimize the seriousness of juvenile crime in general and the horror of the triple murders in particular.

He is imputing this newspaper’s motives without first speaking with us, all while rejecting our repeated requests to meet and discuss our differences.

Allow us to speak for ourselves.

We, too, live in this community and we want less crime, whether it is committed by juveniles or adults.  We want all elements of our juvenile justice system, and parents and the school district, to work together toward this end. We want our community to spot at-risk youths as early as possible to try to keep them out of further trouble.

Yes, we believe these teens must be held accountable for their actions. But we also believe in second chances. We believe that people do stupid, sometimes awful, things as kids but that should not mean they are irredeemable- even when they must live behind bars.

We remind Woods that while he is the most powerful elected official in our county, who answers to no one but the voters, our forefathers had the wisdom to enshrine in our Constitution the freedom—and responsibility–for the press to challenge absolute power.

What they never contemplated, perhaps, was the elected officials operating their own “news’’ outlets.

Woods wants you to trust only the information he provides on his social media channels, and he encourages you to discount what you learn from the “media,” a term he uses as a slur.

But he intentionally blurs the lines. Watch again the video of the two young murder suspects being led in handcuffs to the jail. Listen as the older suspect asks the deputy about the camera recording them, and the deputy responds, “News,” and that “it’s just the way it is.”

That was no news outlet. It was the sheriff’s staff recording the moment, to be shared on the MCSO sites as well as disseminated to the media.

Woods also was selective in what he shared at the press conference. When speaking about the 12-year-old suspect, he neglected to note that the boy told deputies the older suspect made him shoot one of the victims and threatened he’d hurt his family if he did not.

We offer this information not to “minimize” the 12-year-old’s alleged involvement in these crimes but to provide some important context to a terrible situation that many of us are still struggling to understand.

Finally, we’ll say this once more: Sheriff Woods, we want you to succeed in your mission to safeguard our community, and we stand ready to help. But understand, we have a role to play that is different from law enforcement’s. Our obligations are different.

Ultimately, our community is best served when we both succeed.

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