Political Leaders Vote against Violence
BY DEVIN HEFLIN
PINE HILLS, FL- Pine Hills was originally developed in the 1950s as a suburb for workers of the Martin Marietta Corporation. Through the 1980s and 1990s, newer housing developments were built in the county attracting residents away.
Many long-time businesses also left Pine Hills. Disinvestment coupled with external negative perceptions of Pine Hills have plagued the community's residents and business owners. The Pine Hills area was also a target of subprime lending practices during the housing boom, leading to 4,000 foreclosure filings between 2008 and 2010.
Pine Hills, with a majority Caribbean and Black American population, remains an unincorporated area of Orange County, bordered by Clarcona Ocoee Road to the north, West Colonial Drive to the south, North Apopka Vineland Road to the west and North Pine Hills Road to the east.
According to Orange County Sheriff’s office data, homicides in Pine Hills increased by 67 percent between 2012 and 2016, with 35 percent of victims under the age of 25. Sixty-seven percent of homicide suspects were under the age of 25.
In December 2016, Markeith Loyd killed his pregnant ex-girlfriend, Sade Dixon, in Pine Hills before allegedly gunning down Orlando police Lt. Debra Clayton outside a Walmart in the neighborhood in January.
That same month, detectives reported a couple robbed and killed a social worker outside a Pine Hills dialysis center.
Two months prior the owner of a Pine Hills barbershop was shot to death and that same month a teen was killed during his birthday party at a neighborhood home, officials said.
Last Tuesday, Orange County leaders met on a plan to curb what they’ve observed are problems of crime in the Pine Hills community.
After a violent nine months, the county has decided to allocate $7 million to clean up the neighborhood.
The $7 million should go a long way to help clean up Pine Hills, but there are people in the neighborhood who worry that it won’t be enough.
$7 Million will be allocated for:
◾Financial assistance to growing businesses.
◾Appearance improvements to the business corridor
◾Street and intersections improvements.
◾Pedestrian and bicycling safety improvements.
◾Lighting, parks, stormwater drainage, and utility improvements
◾Safer mass transit access improvements
◾Reduction in crime
“We’re planning to try a new solution to take care of the neighborhood’s very old crime problem.” Said Commissioner Victoria Siplin, whose district 6 covers Pine Hills.
Siplin was elected in 2014 as county Commissioner, becoming the third Black woman, after Mable Butler and County Clerk Tiffany Moore-Russell, to occupy the office.
Larry Thompson, a lifelong Pine Hills resident, says the amount is too little, and for many, too late. “The county commission only waits to do something about it, once it was broadcasted everywhere. This places a bandaid on actual wound.” He said.
Thompson, who lives off Colbert Court, has witnessed his neighborhood change from familiar faces, to new faces nearly every month.
Michelle Owens, with the Pine Hills Neighborhood Improvement District, said she believes 1 percent of people committing crime have tainted the entire neighborhood.
“This is a safe, clean environment where you can bring your family, where you can conduct business, where you can open your own business,” she said.
The area is also home to many thriving businesses, such as Full Figured Fashions located on Pine Hills Road, owned by Eunice Butler, who’s worked in the community for decades.
Julius Roman appreciated the cleanup and crime initiatives that have been implemented in Pine Hills, but wished there were more after-school programs and summertime activities for kids.
Romans works with Kings to Queens Barbershop in Pine Hills.
“Because there’s nothing here besides roaming the streets,” he said.
Owens said she has been frustrated that whenever it feels like Pine Hills is improving, something happens to drag the neighborhood back down.
“Every time it seems like we take two steps forward, something will happen and people will get up in arms again and think it’s a scary place, when it’s really not,” she said.
Current Efforts to Curb Crime
Operation RISE," or Restoration, Inclusiveness, Safety and Empowerment, began Dec. 16 to reduce crime in the northwest Orange County neighborhood.
Since then, Sheriff Jerry Demings said his deputies have been targeting known offenders — especially those with arrest warrants. The Sheriff’s Office said they have made 326 arrests in the past three weeks, including outstanding warrants, notices to appear and felony and misdemeanor arrests.
“When we began this initiative we told you … that our goal would be to reduce crime and that this would be an ongoing effort,” Demings said. “What we have found is that the individuals that have engaged in crime in this area have impacted crime countywide.”
Demings partially attributes a recent reduction in violence in the county to the focus on Pine Hills. He said that in the first quarter of 2017, the number of homicides in unincorporated Orange County is down 61 percent from last year. Violent crime is down 15 percent.
“The Pine Hills initiative has been a key component of reducing the violent crime here in our community throughout Orange County,” Demings said.
People like Thompson hope they can get the rest of Central Florida someday to see Pine Hills through their eyes.
“Have a little hear and come out,” he said. “It’s not what everybody thinks. Everybody in this community is not going to rob you or not going to shoot you.”