OCALA, Fla. – For as long as Ocala Police Chief Greg Graham can remember, the Parkside Gardens apartments, just blocks from downtown Ocala, have been plagued with violent crime.
"It was my very first assignment, I sat in a motor home about a block away watching a camera on one of the apartments," Graham said. "My first assignment as a police officer was doing surveillance of this apartment complex 35 years ago."
Graham said crime has fluctuated over the decades but never disappeared.
In January, four people were shot at the complex; one killed. Police said the argument erupted into gunfire wounding innocent people. Most of the people involved did not live at the complex.
"The people that live here are great people and deserve to live in a great community," Graham said. "What we've seen over the years isn't the residents causing problems, it's the people visiting the residents."
So last month, Graham and the mayor of Ocala met with the owner and management of Parkside Gardens to create and implement an "action plan."
"They [the management] weren't as aggressive in enforcing the rules and evicting people causing problems," Graham said. "It's not the location, it's management."
Graham said he and the mayor are pressuring management to make changes to stop the violent crime, starting with sealing off the multiple entrances and exits.
"What we're trying to get them to do is make a single point of entry," Graham said. "It's easy for people who break the law to come in here and do bad things to victimize the residents here. And it's easier for them to get away from us."
Graham said chain link fences don't work in the complex either because some residents or visitors cut holes in the fence.
"It's a lot easier when you see a police car and you can run through a fence and get away from us," Graham said.
Graham is also asking management to install more cameras and a license plate reader, assign parking spaces, limit visitors, and get tougher on evictions.
"We've convinced the management to be more aggressive in their eviction process," Graham said.
Parkside Gardens now runs its tenant list through the Police Department's database to check for warrants, Graham said.
"What we want to make sure everyone who lives here understands is if you allow someone to come here and violate the law you're jeopardizing your ability to live here," Graham said.
Graham said some residents had created "safe houses" for criminals looking to hide -- keeping certain apartments unlocked so crooks can duck in quickly if they need to flee.
"People can't just look at us and say someone got shot, do your job," Graham said. "Well, do your job as a community member and make this place safe."
Graham also promised increased patrols and said management has hired off-duty officers to patrol the complex.
Ocala Police Department spokeswoman Meghan Shay said several nonprofit groups are coordinating to give children, teenagers especially, a safe place to play and hang out after school.
"For the first time we have multiple volunteer agencies stepping up making sure kids have activities and positive things they can do after school and during the summer," Shay said. "There are really good kids living here surrounded by a lot of bad things going on. For example when we had the shooting just steps from here there were children playing in the playground as the crime scene was being worked."
Shay also said the United Way is working with families at the complex to teach them life skills and following up to make sure they stay on track.
Graham said HUD is aware of the violent crime issues and has threatened to revoke Section 8 funding from the complex if it doesn't curb crime.
Graham said the "action plan" has had a positive effect on crime -- calls for service have dropped. But he's not letting up.
"The Police Department certainly isn't going to lighten up and the management here ... is going to have the same intensity in making this place safe," Graham said.