I went to Garden Terrace in Fort Pierce recently for a look at community policing.
I found a spirited game of football going on with the local children and uniformed St. Lucie County sheriff’s deputies.
It is a weekly gathering. In the middle of it all I found Sheriff Ken Mascara.
He and community activist Scott Van Duzer helped spearhead the idea two years ago.
Sheriff Mascara told me, “We started First Step to invite parents and (other) adults to come mentor these kids in the community and be active with them.”
Too often, before the First Step program started, children in Garden Terrace only saw lawmen who responded here after the latest report of violence.
“This community years ago,” Mascara said, “was known as Little Vietnam because of all the shots heard in the community after dark.”
Sheriff Mascara said nearly 100-plus crime reports a year used to be common in the neighborhood.
On the day we visited, he said only eight reports had been filed since last October.
Joseph Jean is a 9th grader who likes to come to the park to visit his friends.
He told me, “They make it a safer place because usually it is not really a safe place in the park.”
Mascara summed it up this way. He said, “We are building trust, opening communications, and I think that is a high priority for not only me but any law enforcement agency in America.”
As day gave way to night, we rode the streets around Fort Pierce with Sheriff Mascara. Other priorities came into focus.
We pulled alongside a task force that coordinates its efforts with Mascara’s STAR team.
It is a unit made up of deputies who harness the latest computer driven data to spot crime trends and, hopefully, stop crime in its tracks.
Gang violence here, as in so many communities, remains a focus. In one neighborhood off Angle Road, Sheriff Mascara points out a bullet riddled car.
Neighbors recalled recent gunfire—instigated by gangs—that sent another bullet flying through a home.
One of the residents said, “My wife was at home babysitting my little boy,and they were sitting in the kitchen when the bullet went through the living room.”
It is the kind of story galvanizing crime-fighting efforts here in 2016.
Mascara, though, wants more than just being tough on crime.
He is a vigorous supporter of alternative efforts—rehabilitation programs, instead of jail time—for non-violent criminals with treatable mental health issues. Indeed, that is one of the major battles facing law enforcement bosses across our community.
They often find their agencies are the first line, and the last line, for people with mental health problems.
Sheriff Mascara sums it up this way. He said, “It is not soft on crime.
It is smart on crime. If we can make these people going from a mental health crisis in their life to (becoming) productive citizens, we are all better for that.”