In the parking lot of the Bradbury Heights Recreation Center in Suitland, candles flickered and tears fell Thursday as dozens who knew J.R. Reid Franklin gathered around his mother, Fern Franklin, and two other women who were chastising the crowd.
“You’re cowards,” Alvina Smith said. “What’s wrong with putting up your hands?”
“It’s not right for you to kill each other,” Victoria Lee, 56, told them, pointing her finger sharply. “Back in the day, you would fistfight, but now all you want to do is bring out guns and knives and shoot each other. You’re punks!”
The women yelling at the crowd were mourning Franklin at the candlelight vigil, but they also were distressed by the violence they’ve seen recently in their communities.
Franklin’s slaying was the latest in a rising number of shootings and homicides reported this year in the Prince George’s County division of the Maryland-
National Capital Park Police.
In most years, the department, which is responsible for patrolling 28,000 acres in Prince George’s, would respond to one or two shootings or homicides in the county, said Lt. Brian Waters, a department spokesman. But in the first eight months of 2015, the county’s Park Police officers have responded to six shootings — three of them resulting in homicides — in or around parks and recreation centers.
“It’s extraordinary to us and something we don’t typically see in our park system,” Waters said of the 120-officer force, which usually deals with nuisance complaints, noise violations, public drunkenness and crowd control.
Some of the shootings appear to be connected, and they have all been unsettling. There was the springtime shooting outside of Northridge Park in Bowie and the gunfire a month later, in May, at Highland Gardens Park in Capitol Heights. That same month, there was the quadruple shooting at the Ardmore Neighborhood Recreation Center that left one man dead and a bystander playing horseshoes in the park with a bullet wound in the stomach. And there were the shootings outside the Huntington Community Center in Bowie and the Birchwood City Community Recreation Center in Oxon Hill, both in June, which each left one person injured. Then there was Franklin’s fatal shooting this month.
While the recent incidents have involved targeted groups of individuals, Waters said, some of shootings have taken place in broad daylight when the parks were crowded, which Waters said is particularly disturbing. The quadruple shooting in Ardmore occurred at 3 p.m. on a Sunday, close to a family reunion.
“It’s a new level of depravity,” Waters said.
The District has also seen shootings outside recreation centers as part of a larger increase in reported homicides and shootings throughout the city. In May, a man was killed near a recreation center off Georgia and Missouri avenues NW. In July, two teens were shot outside the Trinidad Recreation Center in Northeast, which was closed at the time. This month, three men were shot outside the Kennedy Recreation Center in Shaw.
Waters said that the spike in violence reported across the region and in major cities nationwide has manifested itself in Prince George’s County parks as well. In response, the department has been holding more community events to increase police visibility in the parks. Park Police officials have looked into installing surveillance cameras in certain parks. And the department has increased cooperation with Prince George’s County police to spot crime trends and share information.
Maj. Robert Brewer, head of the Criminal Investigations Division for Prince George’s police, said the recent shootings at the Ardmore and Bradbury Heights recreation centers shouldn’t necessarily alarm residents or prevent them from enjoying county parks.
As of Wednesday, Prince George’s police had a reported 39 homicides, up three from the same time last year, according to county data. Nonfatal shootings in the county are up slightly, but violent crime is down nearly 13 percent and down 18 percent overall.
“These are definitely isolated incidents,” Brewer said of the daylight park shootings in Springdale and Suitland. “They’re not related to the park.”
Although Waters said people have recently chosen county parks as “platforms to air their grievances,” he echoed Brewer in reminding residents that the park system is still generally safe.
In the meantime, Waters said the department needs the community to help keep the parks safe by sharing tips and information about Franklin’s shooting and others, which can be done by calling 1-866-411-TIPS (8477). A reward of up to $25,000 is available for information leading to an arrest or indictment in homicide cases.
As the candlelight vigil for Franklin wrapped up with friends blasting the aspiring young rapper’s music from speakers in the parking lot, Smith shook her head at the loss. Her children grew up attending the park where Franklin was shot, and Smith said the violence takes a toll on the community.
“This has to stop,” Smith said. “Your peace is gone when something like this happens.”