Hundreds attend gang task force community forum in Lakeland

LAKELAND, Fla. - More than 250 people showed up to the Coleman-Bush building in Lakeland Tuesday night for the Gang Task Force community forum.

Since last summer, gang violence among kids has exploded in Lakeland. In the last three weeks alone, there have been four drive-by shootings in the city's northwest community. Police say children as young as 8 and 9 years old are currently being groomed for gangs.

"In all of my years, I have never seen it to this point," said Pastor Edgar Pickett. "To see what our kids are going through and doing to each other is heart wrenching."

As the pastor at Word Alive Ministries, Pickett says he's personally eulogized four victims of gang violence recently. However, none hit closer to home than his own cousin. Pickett's 23-year-old cousin was killed two months ago in a drive-by shooting. There have been several in Lakeland over the last few months.

"To this day the case has not been solved," he said. "It just really, really touched my heart."

At that moment, Pickett knew something had to be done. He joined the city's gang task force. At Tuesday night's meeting, they all wore the message "refuse to lose" on their T-shirts.

"We refuse to lose anymore of our young people. We refuse to lose anymore of our neighborhoods and communities," Pickett said.

During the forum, LPD officials said the majority of the recent gang violence is being committed by four known gangs.

Everyone who spoke reiterated the fact this problem is not going to heal itself overnight, but that it would take an entire community's efforts.

"Please, please. We need your help to serve these kids and families," Jennifer Haynes, the chief probation officer for the Department of Juvenile Justice told the crowd.

"If Lakeland doesn't stand together, we're not going to come together," meeting attendee Wynette Clarke said.

Sign-up sheets quickly filled with names of people volunteering to serve as mentors to Lakeland's troubled youth. The task force's goal is to organize and identify 1,000 members of the community to serve as role models.

On June 21, Pickett and other community leaders are planning a rally in the park near Second Street and Roselle Avenue to show the community that the support system is there.

To learn more and keep up with the progrss, visit www.lakelandgov.net/RefusetoLose.aspx .

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