Feb 16, 2023 - News

Feds join Polk County task force to stop rise in shootings

Illustration of the statue of Justice holding handcuffs in place of a scale

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Law enforcement officials in Polk County touted a new joint federal force this week, vowing to stop the area's recent surge in gun violence in the wake of last month's drive-by mass shooting in Lakeland.

Catch up quick: U.S. Attorney Roger Handberg announced federal charges on Wednesday against two suspects in the Jan. 30 shooting that left 11 people injured. Another suspect died last week after he was shot during a car chase with police, per The Ledger.

  • "This is something that doesn't happen in Lakeland," Lakeland police chief Sam Taylor told reporters after the shooting. "I've been here 34 years … and I can tell you I have never worked an event where this many people have been shot at one time. Ever."
  • Police in nearby Lake Wales, meanwhile, are still investigating two similar shootings that took place 17 minutes apart on Jan. 2.

Why it matters: Despite these recent shootings, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd tells Axios crime is at a 51-year low in the county. But "gang-related" and drive-by shootings have gone way up — 59 last year compared to just six in 2019, he said.

Driving the news: Judd announced Wednesday that as part of a new violent gang investigative task force, he'll soon deputize city police officers to have policing authority throughout the county, not just in their jurisdiction.

  • "This is kids shooting kids, and we're not going to accept that," Judd said. "If it takes keeping kids locked up to keep them from shooting, we will."

Between the lines: Similar task forces have resulted in trust and transparency issues between the feds and local police in other cities. At least five major cities have pulled out of their federal task forces since 2017, after federal and local law enforcement officials clashed over running the operations, the Marshall Project reports.

What they're saying: Polk County sheriff's spokesperson Scott Wilder tells Axios the department has no concern about issues other task forces have faced.

  • "This is a multi-agency task force involving every police agency in our county with support from state and federal partners," Wilder said.
  • Representatives for Handberg's office did not respond to Axios' requests for comment.
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