One man’s mission to reduce violence in Hillsborough County

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Freddy Barton held a sugar-free Red Bull in one hand and a stack of small plastic mirrors in the other. He handed the mirrors over to about 20 energetic kids – some as young as 12, some as young as 17 – seated at round tables at the Carey Family Boys & Girls Club in Brandon.

“Look at yourself, take your time,” Barton said. “Fix your hair and all that.”

Backpacks and lunch boxes hung on the wall, some decorated with Disney princesses or Marvel superheroes. Shelves of hula hoops, basketballs and board games lined the other side of the room.

Barton told the children to lower the mirrors and close their eyes.

“That’s how you see yourself now,” he said. “But imagine if you decided to take a gun and hurt someone. You would be fired and the people who love you on the outside won’t see you anymore.

The room became silent.

Barton, 44, is the executive director of Safe & Sound Hillsborough. Where the justice system tends to take a reactive approach to youth violence, its mission is prevention. It defends solutions that concern both public health and public safety; those that emphasize community well-being as a means of reducing violence. In a city that has seen an alarming number of homicides in recent years, his work is more urgent than ever.

Freddy Barton, executive director of Safe and Sound Hillsborough, works with young people during a character building exercise Wednesday, Aug. 17 in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

On a recent July day, for the eighth time in three weeks, Barton was leading a violence prevention workshop called Consequences of Choices.

Two men, Reginald President and Robert Scarborough, stood in front of the room. They had spent 73 years in prison for gun offenses and they were at the Boys & Girls Club to share their experiences.

“When I see you, I see myself,” the president said. “I made bad choices and the consequences were 35 years from my family.”

Scarborough recounted how, as a teenager, he used and sold drugs. At 20, he was imprisoned for murder.

“I made a bad choice,” he said.

Barton told the children to open their eyes and look at the men.

“The whole time you’ve been away, you’ve deprived your loved ones from watching you grow,” Barton said. “The next time they see you, you’ll be the age of these gentlemen here.”

safe and sound

Safe & Sound Hillsborough began after the Sandy Hook shooting in Newton, Connecticut. In the summer of 2013, thenCounty Commissioner Kevin Beckner formed a think tank of elected officials, community leaders and law enforcement officers to discuss how to prevent a similar tragedy here.

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The Hillsborough County Violence Prevention Collaborative, renamed Safe & Sound Hillsborough in 2015, takes a holistic approach to stopping violence.

“We can’t help but fix this problem,” Barton said. “It will never work. We want to treat violence as a public health crisis.

Safe & Sound is designed to influence political decisions. The organization’s board of directors is made up of “every lobby agency in the county,” Barton said, including the public defender’s office, the 13th Judicial Circuit, city police departments and the board of commissioners. County.

As Executive Director, Barton serves as a liaison between these agencies and the communities. “I go to neighborhoods and ask them what they need,” Barton said, “then I translate that to elected officials so they can make funding decisions.”

Freddy Barton, executive director of Safe and Sound Hillsborough, works with young people during a character building exercise Wednesday, Aug. 17 in Tampa.
Freddy Barton, executive director of Safe and Sound Hillsborough, works with young people during a character building exercise Wednesday, Aug. 17 in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Barton, who has lived in the Tampa area since 2004, has been volunteering and doing community work since he was a teenager. He previously served as chief operating officer of the Corporation to Develop Communities of Tampa for six years before joining Safe & Sound in 2016.

“I’m passionate about this job and passionate about Safe & Sound because my number one job in my life is being a father to two young black men,” Barton said.

Raising his teenage sons reminds Barton of how much work remains to be done, he said.

“When my son is getting ready to get in his car and drive,” he said, “I still have to have a conversation about what I need him to do if he gets pulled over. Because you are stigmatized and you have done nothing wrong.

What the data tell us

Youth violent crime spikes in the summer, Barton said, as children lose structure and support from school and extracurricular activities.

In Tampa, homicides have increased. As of mid-July, the city had 34 homicides. And according to data from the Tampa Police Department, the number of homicides rose from 41 in 2020 to 60 in 2021.

These numbers become more alarming when compared to historical data collected by the FBI: Tampa recorded 27 homicides in 2018 and 31 in 2019. This means there were more homicides in Tampa in 2021 than in both years. combined previous ones.

Data from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement shows a downward trend in juvenile arrests in Hillsborough over the past two decades, but Barton is concerned about more recent statistics. Between January and June, for example, 92 children were arrested on gun-related charges.

Barton sees gun violence as his biggest challenge. But it’s not always easy to stay motivated, he said, as gun violence remains widespread.

“It blows my mind when I hear there’s another shooting in East Tampa or West Tampa or wherever,” Barton said. “It’s hard, and I have to be honest, it hurts.”

It’s important, Barton said, to keep tabs on long-term progress.

“I’ve stuck with one thing,” he said, “and that’s doing my best to stay true to the people most at risk: our children.”

A one man army

Freddy Barton, Executive Director of Safe and Sound Hillsborough works with youth identified as (LR) J. Williams, F. Renfroe and T. Diggs during a character building exercise Wednesday August 17 in Tampa.
Freddy Barton, Executive Director of Safe and Sound Hillsborough works with youth identified as (LR) J. Williams, F. Renfroe and T. Diggs during a character building exercise Wednesday August 17 in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Every morning at 3:30 a.m., a court filing arrives in Barton’s inbox from the Hillsborough County Juvenile Assessment Center. It contains a list of children who were arrested the day before. On a recent morning, there were nine names on the roll. Charges ranged from vagrancy to aggravated assault with a weapon.

Barton gets up around 5 a.m. on a typical day, and after a quick workout, he attends court hearings for arrested children at 9 a.m. He helped develop an evening reporting center designed to prevent arrested minors from being taken into custody.

This is an important palliative in the juvenile justice system, he said, because there is no bail option for these children. When arrested, they can be detained for up to 21 days. Judges can allow arrested children to report to the center to work with Barton instead of being detained.

After attending the day’s hearings, Barton usually goes to meetings in places like churches, youth clubs and schools. Then he will meet with the sheriff’s office or the Tampa police to discuss the programs and events that Safe & Sound is working on.

Those who work with Barton say he is tireless, committed and efficient.

“He resonates so well with the kids,” said Hillsborough County Commissioner Gwen Myers, who sits on Safe & Sound’s board of directors. “You can tell the kids really want to listen to it.”

Barton has a busy schedule. He is the leader of Tampa’s national My Brother’s Keeper initiative, a mentorship program for young men of color, and serves on the Board of Directors of the Center for Justice, Research & Policy at the University of South Florida. He is also a member of the Hillsborough State’s Attorney’s Community Advisory Council and Chair of the Circuit 13 Detention Advisory Council.

He likes to imagine the positive chain reaction that would occur if he could reverse the course of a bullet. He imagines a bullet moving backwards through broken glass, then the glass becomes whole and solid again, he said.

The bullet continues to roll back and you see a young man in a cap and gown who can graduate because he wasn’t killed by a gun. You see a mother holding her daughter, who is able to put her to bed at night because she hasn’t been hit by a stray bullet.

“You’re reversing that decision that blew that ball up in the first place,” Barton said. “This bullet recoils, recoils, recoils and returns to a gun. And you see it now, somewhere in the community. You see a hand that was about to pick it up now, walk away and say, “I’m not going to do it.” “

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