PerspectivesMike Clark Jacksonville Today Contributor
Jacksonville Sheriff T.K. Waters talks about a deadly mass shooting at a Dollar General store on Aug. 27, 2023. | Will Brown, Jacksonville Today

OPINION | Sorry, sheriff, Duval is Florida’s murder capital

Published on July 8, 2024 at 3:03 pm
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Jaguars fans like to chant “Duuuval” for their pro football team. But when it comes to the murder rate, sheriffs prefer to use “the city of Jacksonville.” There is a big difference. 

Sheriff T.K. Waters recently defended the city to The Florida Times-Union, amid the news that we are on pace for fewer than 100 homicides this year. “Why is the media so bent on ruining the reputation of Jacksonville by calling Jacksonville the most violent city or the murder capital of Florida?” Waters lamented. “Jacksonville is a really great place and a really great city.”

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I agree that Jacksonville is a great place to live, a friendly city and a super place to raise a family. My wife and I moved here in 1973, raised two daughters, and have lived here most of our lives. But by every meaningful measure, Duval County has long been the murder rate capital of Florida for almost every year over the last several decades. 

The key role of the news media is to raise alarms when a serious issue is not being addressed. Covering up life-and-death issues is a disservice to everyone. Besides highlighting the high murder rate, when I was editor of the Times-Union editorial page, we wrote about infant mortality, suicide and opioid deaths (and won multiple journalism awards in the process).

In that role, I was largely responsible for popularizing the “Florida’s murder-rate capital” moniker from 2005 till 2020. Our staff compiled the evidence that validated the phrase. For years, Jacksonville citizens were not aware of it. That knowledge, strong news coverage, an influential study by Jacksonville Community Council Inc., along with the tragic killing of 8-year-old Dreshawna Davis in 2006, helped spur city leaders to create the Jacksonville Journey

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Here is the key: Jacksonville is both a city and a county. Using city comparisons is like comparing a grape to a watermelon, like Waters did. He compared Jacksonville’s 840 square miles to Palatka’s 7.5 square miles or Fort Lauderdale’s 36 square miles. That’s absurd. 

By comparing the 840-square-mile city of Jacksonville to much smaller cities, sheriffs benefit in two ways:

  1. The Jacksonville murder rate looks better in city-to-city comparisons. Duval County includes large urban, suburban and rural areas with less crime than cities that are entirely urban.
  2. Comparing Duval’s large area to smaller, strictly urban cities allows the Duval sheriff to complain that his police force has too few personnel. 

If Waters wants to use city comparisons, then he should use the boundaries of the former core city and watch Jacksonville’s murder rate explode.

Waters should have limited his comments to the fact that Jacksonville’s murders are trending far below recent levels. That’s great news. The drop in murders so far this year is phenomenal. Sheriff’s office data as of July 3 show just 31 murders so far, compared to 121 for the entire year of 2023. Let’s hope the trend continues.

This year’s relatively low murder toll compares to Duval County’s lows of 81 in 2010 and 76 in 2011, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Those declines came after the multi-pronged Jacksonville Journey of 2008, which devoted funds for prevention, intervention and enforcement.

As reported by the Journey’s oversight committee for 2011:

  • Overall crime was down 24%
  • Murders were down by 38%
  • There was a 35% drop in repeat offenses thanks to a strong ex-offender program
  • Juvenile crime was down by 32%

Funding for the Journey was gutted during the Great Recession, reducing its impact. Spending for Journey programs other than law enforcement declined from $15 million in 2009 to $2.3 million in 2014. As former Sheriff John Rutherford used to say, you can’t arrest your way out of Jacksonville’s murder problem.

Mayor Donna Deegan ran on the platform of reviving the Journey, but the major budget priority in the city now involves the $775 million the city owes for a rebuild of its football stadium for the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Other huge local priorities like a new jail, producing affordable housing, properly funding police pensions and mitigating the impact of climate change are in the usual Jacksonville limbo of studies, committees and token funding. 

If you want to get picky, you can say Duval is Florida’s “urban” murder rate capital. For instance, according to Florida HealthCharts, here are Florida’s age-adjusted murder rates per 100,000 population in 2022, a typical recent year:

  • Duval County: 15.7 rate (156 murders)
  • Miami-Dade County: 8.5 rate (227 murders)
  • Orange County: 7.5 rate (114 murders)
  • Palm Beach County: 7.0 rate (94 murders)
  • Hillsborough County: 6.9 rate (103 murders)
  • Pinellas County: 4.9 rate (44 murders)

It’s not close. Duval is definitely the murder rate capital. The difference in raw murder numbers has a lot to do with population. Miami-Dade County has 2.7 million people compared to the 1 million in Duval County. Therefore, Miami-Dade’s murders would have to be more than 2.7 times Duval’s murders to exceed our murder rate. 

Now if you want to look at rural counties in North Florida with small populations, you can find higher murder rates. Take Hamilton County: a murder rate of 55 on just seven murders in 2022.

Another confusing factor in making comparisons involves the different definitions of killings. Official agencies tend to use homicide and murder interchangeably. But there is a broader definition of homicide — any killing of one person by another, which includes negligent homicide and justifiable homicide (most police-involved shootings). The Times-Union’s longtime tracker uses the broader definition, but official agencies use the narrower one, which complicates comparisons. Usually, however, the trends are the same.

In summary, when you see a comparison that includes Jacksonville, ask if it’s a city-to-city comparison or a more valid county or metro comparison.

For Florida’s urban counties, where most of the state’s murders are occurring, Duval has legitimately been the state’s murder capital for decades. We don’t celebrate that fact, we call for action to correct it, such as fully funding the Jacksonville Journey.

But first, we have to spend money to rebuild a football stadium.

author image Jacksonville Today Contributor Mike Clark is the retired editorial page editor of The Florida Times-Union. He is currently writing a book and producing a podcast based on the letters that his great-great-grandfather, Edgar W. Clark, a Union private, sent to his wife during the Civil War.

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