After the death of a 22-year-old gang member in a case of friendly fire in Pensacola, Florida in June, a spotlight has been put on the increase in gang violence in Escambia County, the northwestern-most area of the state of Florida. Juston Donson was shot in the head after he and four of his friends confronted an 18-year-old male who had threatened Donson with a gun earlier that night. The 18-year-old, who had been arrested in the month prior to this incident due to illegal carrying of a concealed weapon, holed himself up in his home for hours after the shooting out of fear. Meanwhile, the four friends of Donson were later charged with murder.
According to the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office, a majority of the violent crimes that take place in the county are gang-related. “Whether it’s a petty theft at Walmart… or whether it’s a gang-motivated crime… one gang member shooting a rival gang member… one way or another we can relate 80 percent of the crime in this county to gangs,” Sergeant Jon Pinney says. Local authorities say that the gang system in the community is fairly disorganized compared to national networks, which explains the higher frequency of friendly fire incidents such as that which claimed the life of Donson. This also results in more gruesome outliers, such as rape and kidnapping, due to not having to run ideas through a hierarchy as is commonly done in larger gang networks such as the Bloods and the Crips. It doesn’t help matters that the size of these loosely organized gangs has greatly increased in northern Florida, from 161 gangs and 565 members in 2010 to 201 gangs and 1472 members in 2013. Specifically, in Pensacola, an estimated 20 gangs are currently active, although because of their size they only make up a negligible percentage of the local prison population.
The situation in Escambia County is further exacerbated by the lack of qualified personnel to handle gang-related violence. Only three investigators are assigned to the Sheriff’s Office gang unit, which has been an official division of the department since 2014. The unit is charged with handling these sorts of issues, the highest frequency crime dealt with being illegal possession of firearms. Prevention, which is also a goal of the county police department, is made more difficult by the fact that younger members in disorganized gangs have less fear of arrest and a stronger desire to prove themselves. Pinney says that he’s found that gang initiations have begun as early as 11 years old, usually involving breaking into cars and homes. Gang members as young as 13 years old have been captured with illegal firearms. Currently, the strategy taken by the gang unit is to pursue stricter punishments and hoping that being a member of a gang ceases to be a source of pride in the community.