Over the last several years, we have repeatedly been saddened by the tragedy of so many young shooters casually killing our children and our youth. Every murder is tragic, but it is particularly heartbreaking to meet with the parents, grandparents and siblings of a child killed in a cascade of bullets while innocently playing in his or her own home.
The pain caused by these deaths is further exacerbated by how few individuals are actually arrested for these killings. Even when arrests are made, many cases cannot be prosecuted. Many potential witnesses refuse to participate because they fear retaliation or being labeled a “snitch.”
When the killers escape prosecution, they remain on the streets—or return to them—free to continue killing others and terrorizing their neighborhoods.
There are many factors that contribute to the rampage of gun violence, including a lack of opportunities for adequate housing, healthcare, education, and employment.
While prosecutors cannot address these kinds of social injustices and barriers, we can make our communities safer by building relationships and working closely with those who live there.
In 2015, we designed and implemented a pilot program to address community violence with the Miami-Dade Police Department’s (MDPD) Northside District. We embedded experienced prosecutors from the State Attorney’s Office (SAO), victim/witness coordinators, and investigators at MDPD’s Northside Station.
The SAO staff members reached out to the community and worked closely with citizens and police officers to address gun violence in unincorporated North Dade neighborhoods. Their efforts led to an increase in the number of people arrested and prosecuted for terrorizing other residents with their gun violence.
Based on the program’s success, we established a permanent unit to continue meeting the needs of the Northside District, as well as the needs of the City of Miami’s North District.
In 2019, we expanded the unit to include Miami Gardens. The State Attorney’s Gun Violence Reduction Initiative (GVRI) now is led by a Division Chief level Assistant State Attorney (ASA), who responds to the scene of every firearm related homicide in the targeted areas, and is staffed by an “A” level ASA, who responds to contact shootings in the targeted areas, three full-time State Attorney Investigators, a legal secretary, a victim/witness coordinator, and a representative from our Community Outreach Unit.
These resources are co-located at the MDPD Northside District Station and at the Miami Gardens Police Department and work hand-in-hand with police officers and citizens in the field.
These employees respond to virtually every contact shooting within the targeted geographical area, serving as an invaluable resource for law enforcement from the very inception of the case.
In addition, the State Attorney has assigned a victim specialist to work directly out of the Miami-Dade Police Department Northside station, assisting our victims with services such as counseling, financial support and relocation.
It has been our experience that having prosecutors, investigators and victim specialists imbedded with police and involved early in these cases has been tremendously beneficial and greatly enhances our chances of obtaining a successful prosecution.
To date, GVRI members have investigated over 80 homicides and more than 180 contact shootings. Collaborative work has also led to the execution of dozens of search warrants targeting adjudicated felons in possession of firearms throughout the communities.
During the first six months of 2020 alone, officers recovered and/or confiscated 113 firearms, including AK-47’s, AR-15’s, and sawed-off shotguns, and charged 47 defendants with Felon in Possession of a Firearm.
Remarkably, during the past year-and-a-half prosecutors have been able to file charges against almost everyone the police arrested for contact shootings or homicides (31 of 32 contact shootings, and 21 of 22 homicides).
Most recently, GVRI prosecutors worked with MDPD detectives and members of the community to solve a case where a seven-year-old girl was murdered in a drive-by shooting.
We have learned through experience that intelligence-sharing is essential to solving and prosecuting these types of gun violence cases. Towards that end, our local and federal partners at MDPD and ATF help us trace the use of firearms across open and pending cases in the targeted areas to make new arrests and strengthen pending cases.
We are committed to keeping local residents and visitors safe and owe those who live in victimized neighborhoods nothing less than our best efforts.
Our successes are a direct reflection of the great relationships we have developed with local communities, as well as with our law enforcement partners.
Katherine Fernández Rundle is Miami-Dade State Attorney. Nilo Cuervo, a prosecutor in the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, and Division Chief of the Gun Violence Reduction Initiative.