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Orange safety task force recommends expanding violence intervention initiatives

Orlando Sentinel - 6/21/2023

The Citizens Safety Task Force unanimously recommended allocating more money to Orange County’s credible messenger program during its final meeting Wednesday, as well as adopting other models of violence intervention.

The call for more funding for the Orange County Credible Messengers, run by reformed former gang leader Ruben Saldaña, comes about a year after the program was created to focus on reaching at-risk youth in targeted areas in the county like Pine Hills and Oak Ridge.

County officials are in the process of contracting four certified credible messengers with the goal of offering prevention and intervention services.

“Our credible messenger model is great; they’re working directly with these families,” said Tracy Salem, deputy director of the county’s Community and Family Services department. “We want that person to have credibility to be able to go into the community and work in crisis with not only the family that is involved in it, but maybe the victim … and the community that surrounds and supports this area.”

In addition, task force members urge the creation of a community violence intervention initiative targeting would-be violent perpetrators and intervening before violence escalates.

A similar program was implemented by the City of Orlando in November, the results of which are still being studied. Lisa Early, who helps oversee that program as Orlando’s director of Families, Parks and Recreation, said it has shown early promise as it enrolled 38 people as part of the city’s contract with Advance Peace, receiving ongoing support as well as being connected with resources.

She also lauded Saldaña’s work with the county after he received $85,000 to identify and certify credible messengers.

“We’re not sure they’re given enough money to really get the job done,” Early said. “If it’s being effective, the county should consider allocating even more money to the program.”

Among other recommendations approved Wednesday are expanding street cameras to include areas in the county beyond those considered at high risk of crime, more aggressive anti-violence campaigns to include youth input and legal reviews of state and federal gun laws to better inform educational efforts.

The task force further urged to add new questions to community crime surveys addressing reasons behind past crimes and what could have been done to prevent them, as well as expanding mental health resources.

So far in 2023, more than 20,000 Americans have been killed with a gun, most by suicide, according to the Gun Violence Archive.

Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings said the task force’s findings will be part of the discussions as officials begin drafting the county’s budget for the coming fiscal year, while keeping in mind state preemptions against local governments implementing gun control ordinances.

“That is an area that I’m going to ask the county attorney’s office to make certain that any recommendations that come forward do not run afoul of the current state law,” Demings said.

The proposals made after discussions held since March were tweaks to the original reports done when the task force first convened following a spate of gun violence in 2021. The most recent round of meetings came after the killing of three people, including a child and a TV journalist, sparked public outcry.

County Commissioner Michael Scott, who also works as a mentor, praised the task force’s work while suggesting its meetings live on as part of a county advisory board.

“It’s a community problem that’s going to require all of us in different ways,” Scott said. “While I think I’m an OK, pretty decent mentor, I know I’m not the solution for every kid.”

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