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Mayor Lenny Curry talks with Tomeshia Brown, mother of Aiden McClendon, at the end of a prayer vigil last Monday at Bethel Baptist Institutional Church. Aiden was murdered in a Jan. 29 drive-by shooting, as he sat in a car with Brown and his grandmother.
Jax Daily Record Monday, Feb. 8, 201612:00 PM EST

The emotional side of leading a city through devastating crime problem

by: Marilyn Young

Aiden McClendon died hours after being hit by three bullets in a drive-by shooting Jan. 29.

A life ended at just 22 months in a city growing weary of escalating violent crime.

There’s a business side for city officials to lead on an issue like this. And there’s an emotional side, too.

A balance of finding money to get more cops on the street and strengthen prevention and intervention programs while also helping residents — including their own families — try to make sense of a murder like Aiden’s.

That’s what happens when an innocent child is killed.

Much of the day after Aiden’s shooting is a blur for Mayor Lenny Curry. But he has a vivid recollection of a moment in his family room with his 10-year-old son, Boyd.

“I just looked at him and that’s when it really hit me,” Curry said Friday.

The mayor walked over and kissed his oldest child on the forehead, drawing a puzzled look from his son. He told Boyd why he did it, but Curry said, “I still can’t explain the moment.”

All three of Curry’s children know about Aiden’s murder. His 6-year-old daughter Bridget is “just beside herself about it all,” unable to understand why it happened.

Again, Curry didn’t know how to explain it.

Former Mayor John Peyton faced a similar seminal moment during his first term in office when DreShawna Davis was murdered in 2006.

The 8-year-old girl was killed while crouching over her cousins, protecting them from bullets meant for her uncle.

It’s a day that still affects Peyton almost a decade later. His children were much younger than Curry’s, so he didn’t have to try to explain it to them then.

But his sons are 10 and 8 now. They know about Aiden.

Peyton explains it by telling them there are people who do really bad things and make really bad decisions, for which there are consequences.

“You don’t want them to live in fear,” he said, “but you want them to know the world they live in.”

Sheriff Mike Williams’ youngest son is a sixth-grader. He asked about Aiden, but didn’t make a big point of it, the sheriff said.

“He’s pretty shrewd, though,” Williams said.

A life-changing day for Peyton

Talking to the young victims’ family members can be transformative.

Peyton describes meeting DreShawna’s grandmother as “an encounter that changed my world.”

DreShawna was murdered the day before the city’s long-awaited River Accord was to be announced.

It was hard to be excited that day on the barge despite the historic event, Peyton said.

Afteward, he met with DreShawna’s grandmother at the Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront, where she was being kept for her protection.

He watched her re-enact how her husband held DreShawna on the floor in those final moments, the young girl saying, “I can’t breathe” as she was taking her last breaths.

“I left there thinking we have to do better,” Peyton said.

That led to the creation of Jacksonville Journey, a crime prevention and intervention program put together during his administration with input from about 150 stakeholders.

The first time he talked publicly about his meeting with DreShawna’s grandmother was during his final Martin Luther King Jr. Day breakfast in 2011.

It took everything he had to make it through the speech, Peyton said.

Everything he had been reading in the headlines became real the day DreShawna was killed.

“I was never the same after that,” Peyton said.

A city weeps again

At a public vigil last Monday, Curry publicly apologized to Aiden’s family members for the loss they suffered.

The apology wasn’t planned, he said. In fact, the whole speech was spontaneous, despite having notes prepared by his staff.

Also spontaneous were the tears that came during his speech that night.

Asked about a private moment he shared at the vigil with Aiden’s family, Curry said, “You’re just there. You just comfort and hug them.”

And he comforted others, as well.

There was a man at the service that Curry said he could tell was on edge.

“I grabbed him and said, ‘Man if you want to cry, just cry,’” Curry said. “He buried himself in my chest.”

Both he and Williams spoke at Aiden’s funeral Saturday, at the request of the family’s pastor.

“It’s inconceivable that this child had to go to heaven to be safe,” Williams said during the funeral. “But now he is with God and we know he’s safe.”

Curry reiterated points he made at the vigil — the city loves Aiden’s family and how the photo of the little boy wearing his ball cap backwards will always be in the mayor’s mind and heart for the work the city has to do to.

Working through it

The emotional toll can build up for city leaders, as well.

Williams said it was clear shortly after the shooting that Aiden likely wasn’t going to survive.

“I kind of prepared myself for that to be the case,” he said.

Cops are notorious for burying their emotions, the sheriff said.

“What helps police officers is there’s work to be done. Rather than sit down and grieve, we can get out and work,” Williams said.

He leans on his family in difficult times.

Williams’ father retired from the Sheriff’s Office in the early 1990s and his brother is there now.

Williams and his wife got married when he was in the police academy, so she’s been a cop’s wife from the beginning.

“Faith and family are all incredibly important,” he said.

Curry said he talks to his wife, Molly; his pastor; and his parents, though he admits most of the conversations he initiates are solution-oriented ones.

But they tell him how they think he should process the issue, including whether he should go to bed thinking about it and wake up thinking about it.

Does he still go to bed thinking about the crime problem? Yes, he admitted.

He said his daily time at the gym is critical. If his workout is in the morning, it also includes prayer/meditation and reading scripture.

“Starting the day in the right place mind, body and spirit,” he said.

It also can include 5 a.m. text messages to staff members about an issue.

If the workout happens later in the day, it’s just a hard workout with hard-core music.

Working to avoid another senseless murder

The day after Aiden’s shooting, Curry, Williams, City Council members and religious leaders gathered at a quickly organized news conference.

The event was a mixture of anger, frustration and sadness, but also commitments to find who killed Aiden and to work together on longtime solutions.

Up to $1.5 million would be allocated for police overtime, which would pay for 30,000 additional hours.

Williams said he will announce details soon about new approaches to tackling the crime problem. One of those is establishing a violent crime task force, where four teams will have a mix of investigators in key areas, such as drugs, gangs and homicide, that will work cases together.

Curry’s administration is stressing the rebuilding of Jacksonville Journey, whose funding has been picked away over the years.

Williams has seen efforts take off like this before, but they often die down as officials lose focus. He doesn’t want that to happen this time.

On his last night, Aiden was with his mother and grandmother, two women who loved him dearly.

But love can’t shield a baby from bullets.

And promises alone can’t keep it from happening again.

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