"Man, it's hard to walk in this neighborhood," Ahmad Miles Franklin Jr. says as we walk down Lila Street on an overcast Saturday afternoon. His eyes are hidden behind dark sunglasses, his face obscured by a wide-brimmed black hat that hangs low on his forehead. Every so often, you catch the faintest hint of his voice breaking.
A week and a day earlier, the Friday before Christmas, his father, Ahmad Miles Franklin, was hit by three bullets while standing on his front porch of the duplex he shared with his longtime fiancée. The police called him an innocent bystander; his relatives and neighbors believe he was caught in the crossfire of a neighbor's drug-related feud. Franklin died at the hospital on Dec. 23. You can still see the bullet holes in the concrete of his Linda Street home.
"He helped people out in the neighborhood," Franklin Jr. says. "Whatever people needed, he did it for them." His oldest niece, Khalinah Brown, says that he was the kind of guy who'd wait by the bus stop and make sure kids got home OK, that he had an infectious laugh that would prompt you to join him even if you had no idea what he was laughing about.
And now he's dead.
Today Franklin Jr. and Brown, along with Franklin's mother, friends, neighbors and a contingent of volunteers organized by the local chapter of the group MAD DADS — that's "Men Against Destruction, Defending Against Drugs and Social Disorder" — are walking the streets of this Northside neighborhood looking for answers, for justice, for closure.
"Somebody was on this street who saw what happened to Mr. Franklin," says A.J. Jordan, vice president of MAD DADS Jacksonville. "I am 100 percent sure about that."
So far, however, no one's talking. This isn't unusual. Franklin's is one of 48 unsolved Jacksonville homicides, MAD DADS says, and one of 18 in 2013 alone. In at least some of these cases, the biggest impediment is that witnesses just won't cooperate with the police.
"One of our primary goals is to get them to break the code of silence," says Donald Foy, the local MAD DADS president. Part of it is fear of retaliation — "snitches gets stitches," as the saying goes. But there's also something deeper, an ingrained distrust of the JSO that goes back decades, to a time when the cops were "coming in [to black neighborhoods] and terrorizing the community," Jordan says. "Now the community feels like they're the enemy. If you talk to the police, you snitching."
Foy understands it — "Ten, 15 years ago [they] would have beat me with a billy club"— but if they want to be crime- and drug-free, he says, these communities have to move beyond old antagonisms. "We have too many [people who] want to run JSO over" because of these unsolved murders. "What can JSO do if they don't have the information?"
Foy's group is here to gin up that information — to get it, if not to the police, then at least to Crime Stoppers, where tipsters can remain anonymous. Some three dozen people are canvassing the neighborhood, passing out fliers and talking to neighbors and passers-by, asking them to come forward if they know anything. Because of Crime Stoppers' anonymity policy, they'll probably never know if their efforts bore fruit.
Later that night, Jordan would tell me that the relationship between the JSO and Northside neighborhoods is getting better. JSO is more approachable. The police walk or bike their beats, and interact and forge relationships with community members. And, he points out, three uniformed JSO deputies joined the MAD DADS canvass. "We want the community to know this is a collective effort," Jordan says.
Alexis Parker, the daughter of Franklin's fiancée (she introduces herself as his stepdaughter), doesn't seem sold on the kumbaya. She was inside, on the sofa, with her kids and nephew when Franklin was shot. Until about three months ago, she told me, this neighborhood was safe and quiet. But then drug dealers moved in. Chaos ensued. There were gunshots and drug activity. One neighbor in particular, she says, called the police repeatedly — sometimes the JSO directly, sometimes Crime Stoppers.
"Nobody came around," Parker says. "It could have been prevented."
JSO records indicate that there were two calls for service, including a report of gunshots on Dec. 5, that originated from Franklin's Linda Street address in the three months before his shooting. Police showed up both times. *His Linda Street neighbors, meanwhile, called JSO nine times during that three-month span, reporting incidents ranging from burglaries to an “armed dispute” to gunfire. According to JSO records, deputies were dispatched in response to all but one of those calls.
The day after the shooting, Brown says, the drug dealers packed up and left. Since then, things have settled back down.
For Parker, however JSO handled the neighborhood's drug problems, it doesn't change the fact that her stepfather is dead and someone needs to be held accountable. If no one speaks up, that won't happen. "I'm not going to let this get swept under the rug," she says. "He was a good person."
*The web version of this story has been updated to include information provided by JSO after press time.