Palm Beach County's first murder of 2012 broke Belle Glade's heart. Jimmy McMillan, 49, was gunned down in the grocery store his family had owned for seven decades. He was a generous man and champion fisherman, known for giving away food and letting longtime customers buy on credit. His death made headlines for weeks; a $25,000 reward was offered to find his killer.
Yet he was hardly alone. Before McMillan's tragedy, 11 murders rocked Belle Glade in 2011. According to crime statistics presented to the Palm Beach County Commission this week, that's nearly three times the homicide total from the year before. In 2010, just four people were killed; three died in 2009. For a
small, impoverished sugar-farming town of 17,700 people, going from four to 11 murders is a staggering blow.
By comparison, the City of West Palm Beach, whose population is about six times bigger than Belle Glade's, had 19 murders in 2010. The 2011 crime stats for West Palm Beach have not yet been released by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
In Belle Glade, forcible sexual offenses are on the upswing too, increasing from 22 to 25 between 2010 and 2011. So why does the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office get to brag that the city's overall crime has fallen a whopping 25 percent since 2010? Well, there's a lot less larceny, burglary, and aggravated assault.
Hmmm. Murders went up and larceny went down. That should make people feel safe, don't you think?
Sherrie Dulany, an elementary-school teacher and former city commissioner who has lived in Belle Glade for most of her life, is trying to combat the statistics. After McMillan's death, she started a Facebook page called Take Back Belle Glade/The Glades Communities. More than 620 people have joined it. Dulany posts information about meetings and antiviolence rallies and uses the page to recruit members for a citizens police academy, designed to help educate residents about what the cops really do.
Dulany says sheriff's officials have explained that there are far more shootings in West Palm than in Belle Glade.
"It doesn't make you feel any safer, but it does make you realize it's not an isolated problem," she says.