TALLAHASSEE – After nearly 30 years patrolling the Tallahassee streets, Mike Blackburn has a unique perspective on the city and how it became the highest ranked for violent crime in Florida.
As much as the capital city has changed over the years, Blackburn, who retired from the Tallahassee Police Department (TPD) in May, thinks one of the big reasons for the increase in crime is something that hasn’t changed in all those years – the number of police officers patrolling its streets.
Since 1990, the population of Tallahassee and Leon County has grown roughly 50 percent. Murder in Leon County has gone up a staggering 133 percent since then and forcible sex offences have increased nearly 50 percent, according to Florida Department of Law Enforcement Total Index of Crimes.
Over his career, Blackburn saw the drug of choice change from crack to meth, saw gangs go from unorganized local groups to national gangs like the Crips and the Bloods and saw the public’s opinion of police change, too often, from respect to disdain.
Yet, with all that’s changed, the number of TPD officers has stayed about the same. “There aren’t many more officers now than there was in ‘88,” he said.
According to TPD, as of July 2016 there are 394 officer positions with only 371 of those positions filled, including trainees.
In 2005, the furthest TPD records go back, there were 342 filled officer positions, that is an 8.5 percent over 10 years. During this period, the City of Tallahassee population increased by approximately 15 percent.
Thirty-three officers are slated to be hired by the end of 2016, but Blackburn thinks that number should be doubled. He said 15 to 20 officers have either just retired or are about to.
“That number just gets us back to where we were,” he said. Blackburn said this lack of officers changed the way law is enforced in Tallahassee and contributed to the recent spike in violent crime.
Blackburn began in the late ‘80s on regular patrol on the south side of town. He later worked in vice and narcotics.
“Back when I first started there was a lot of street enforcement and you had time to get out and do it because we had enough people working,” he explained, “but now, they’re so strapped for manpower that they’re just running from call to call and you can’t get out and enforce anything on the streets. When you don’t have street enforcement you have people out there running around with guns. Every time you turn around someone’s getting shot.”
“Street enforcement is where you stop things. If I saw a 14 year old hanging out on the street corner after midnight, I could get out and talk to him and find out what he was up to.” He explained officers could get guns off the street before they were used to shoot somebody.
Today, many ideas are floating to address the crime issue. Commissioner Curtis Richardson and City Commission candidate Bruce Strouble have both called for Tallahassee to implement a program like Chicago’s Cure Violence model, which treats crime as a health issue.
Blackburn called that “bull.”
“Crime is not a health issue,” Blackburn said, “It’s a behavior. It’s ridiculous for Tallahassee to copy Chicago, which has the highest violent crime rate in the country. Why should we copy failure? If you ask the cops up there, they’ll tell you it’s a failure.”
Blackburn sees a role for community policing but not without street enforcement. While on the force, he participated in TPD’s Problem Oriented Policing (POP) program, which involved lots of interaction with the community combined with enforcement.
He thought overall, “People were more prone to report problems, but you gotta have street enforcement. That’s where you intercept a lot of stuff.” Blackburn added, “You could do a lot. Now our hands are tied.”
Between what he sees as a lack of federal support for police and a media that is quick to convict an officer without the facts, Blackburn feels there is a target on officers’ backs across the country.
Locally, he said things aren’t much better. Recently, a local officer was cleared of wrongdoing in the 2014 death of Duane Strong, but in May of this year, the family still received a $325,000 settlement.
“That sends a message to law enforcement. It makes you think, no matter what I do somebody’s gonna profit off of it.”He said it affects morale. “Nobody has your back anymore. You never know what’s going to happen.”
He explained that by the end of his career, he was constantly looking over his shoulder and every officer made changes to be safer. “I started parking in different places so somebody couldn’t come up on me.”
“I got out at just the right time,” he said. But Blackburn also realizes everyone does not disdain police officers and many go out of their way to show support.
Blackburn said. “I’ve had several people offer to pick up my tab (for a meal or drink) to show support. That didn’t use to happen.” He said that really helps boost morale.
Even with all the negative changes in Tallahassee Blackburn still sees the good.
“There are a lot of decent people out there,” he said.