Surviving the Big Bang
After another long night, another “all hands on deck” situation, another shooting, Pensacola Police Chief Tommi Lyter decided to drop by the hospital and check on the woman who had been shot in the chest at point-blank range.
“Just to check in, let her know we’re workin’ it, and we’re going to work it until we can’t anymore,” Lyter said.
The Jan. 22 shooting—one in a string of recent shootings in the region —is related to a robbery. The Dollar General clerk was shot after two masked gunmen held up the Garden Street store.
“What you’ve seen over the last several years is an uptick in the general violence of criminals and criminal activity and their proclivity to use firearms,” said Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan. “This has been growing for some time.”
Just like all the other shootings, the Dollar General robbery elicited a swift, sweeping response from law enforcement.
“I was out there this morning actually, just driving around, seeing if I could see anything—I try to get out of the office as much as I can—and when I was out there, I saw no less than 10 of my officers out there doing the same thing,” Lyter said.
Pensacola’s police department ran through this same exercise earlier in the month, following a rolling shootout that ended with a crash at the McDonald’s at the intersection of Cervantes Street and Ninth Avenue, flushing out into the surrounding neighborhoods and canvassing the community for information leading to the suspects.
“Every available officer—I was over there, my captains were over there and we were out looking for these guys, tracking them with K-9s,” Lyter said. “We made arrests in it pretty quick.”
Sometimes responding to events involving gun violence is all that can be done. Morgan noted, “As much as we don’t like to admit it, we’re not so much in the crime prevention business anymore as much as we’re in the response business.”
“We’re going to have a hard line in the sand,” Lyter said, explaining his department’s efforts to tackle gun violence. “It’s old-fashioned police work. It’s good guys versus bad guys.”
Spilling into the Streets
The early January shootout that crashed into the McDonald’s parking lot on a Friday afternoon was a spectacular mess.
“What happened that Friday was gang-related,” Chief Lyter said. “Two rival gangs, one of them spotted the driver of the other car and decided that they were going to shoot it out. And they had this rolling shootout through the city that ended in the parking lot of McDonald’s. The driver of the car, the intended target, got out, and as he was running into the McDonald’s, they were still shooting at him.”
Like most of the gun violence in the region, this incident was rooted in the drug trade. Local groups had apparently been ripping each other off. Lyter said, “That’s where it started, was drug rip-offs. And then it just escalates, you know, spirals out of control quickly, if you’re not careful.”
But it is also representative of a dangerous shift in the dynamic. Things are increasingly spilling out into public.
“Our stance has always been, if you are not in the drug trade, the chances of you being the victim of a violent crime in the city are near zero. All of the violence that we were seeing surrounded the drug trade,” Lyter explained. “But this group has changed that dynamic. Now, if they see each other, and they happen to be standing in the parking lot of wherever they are, they’re much more inclined to shoot it out.”
That’s what happened last May, when Elizabeth Harris was killed during a shooting near the Platinum Club.
“That poor woman had nothing to do with narcotics dealing. She was a nurse; she was a fine, upstanding citizen, and she happened to be standing at the wrong place at the wrong time when these two guys decided to shoot it out,” Lyter said.
After the Platinum Club shooting, Chief Lyter reached out to federal law enforcement partners and initiated a joint task force to address gun violence. The task force, which has so far netted 117 arrests, included the U.S. Attorney’s for the Northern District of Florida, the State Attorney’s office, the Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Marshals, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
“I think the task force was a great success,” Lyter said, describing one instance in which federal partners assisted local efforts in pursuing suspects. “We were literally standing in a parking lot at, like, two o’clock in the morning and reached out to our federal partners. And they made a phone call to the U.S. Attorney’s office and they said, ‘Go ahead and take the case.’ And that doesn’t happen. I don’t know if it’s ever happened to my knowledge. As a chief, it’s the first time. So, that’s the level of cooperation that we’re getting with our federal partners.”
The Pensacola Police Department is also coordinating efforts with the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office, with the two agencies working together to address an issue that doesn’t recognize city-county boundaries.
“It paid dividends immediately, because as soon as we got together, we started sharing information,” Lyter said. “We had a big piece of the puzzle, the sheriff department had a huge piece of the puzzle and once we put ‘em together, we had enough for some warrants that day.”
A number of city police officers, in fact, have been deputized by the sheriff’s office so that they can work either side of the city-limit divide.
“If a bad guy isn’t living in the city, it’s hard for us to really go out there really and put pressure on him and chase him. So, it handicapped us a little bit,” Lyter said. “What it does is give us reach outside of the city.”
Why Things Turn Ugly
When Chief Lyter took the lead at PPD, he was determined to get a better handle on violent crime and gun violence. And he’s enjoyed a few years of fair weather.
“I’m going to knock on wood here. Our homicide rates continue to be at historic lows; our crime is at historic lows,” Lyter said. “So far in the city, I think we’re still in a decent spot.”
But recent events have put the chief on edge. He’s haunted by the thought of losing another innocent bystander in a public crossfire. That’s why he increased the patrol from around 30 officers up to 80 during the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day parade after receiving information about threats of violence which he deemed credible.
“We felt uncomfortable about the threats,” Lyter said, explaining the decision to increase security during the parade. “The problem we have is if you get it wrong, then the implications are just tragic. I’m not going to lose a city resident to violence if I have anything to do with it.”
Something about the selfish, vicious mindlessness of the recent shootings also shakes the chief. Like that Dollar General clerk—why’d they have to shoot her?
“That is tragic,” Lyter said after visiting the victim in the hospital. “That poor woman has been a school teacher for 25 years, teaching first grade and kindergarten. And she has kid so she works there part-time to help make ends meet. And those guys went in there and shot her—I saw the video, and I can’t understand why they shot her. There was no reason for them to shoot that poor woman.”
Sheriff Morgan sees the lack of respect and decency in society today for the rise in gun violence.
“Otherwise, why would you indiscriminately pull out a gun—you know, it’s a lack of maturity; it’s a lack of self-control,” said the sheriff. “I get angry with you, and we’re sitting at a restaurant, so I pull out a gun and start shooting at you. You know, I don’t think of anyone or anything other than my momentary anger, that I want to lash out at you. And obviously there’s a lot of innocent people around. And there’s never an excuse to allow violence to escalate to that.”
He continued, “So why would I do that? Again, poor parenting, a lack of discipline, a lack of self-control—I’m running with a group or crowd that embraces that sort of behavior. That’s not a law enforcement problem; that’s a societal problem.”