With early voting scheduled for August 3rd and vote-by-mail ballots going out July 10th, Alachua County Sheriff candidates got a head start presenting their platforms on Tuesday night during a virtual forum hosted by the Alachua County Democrats.
Sheriff Sadie Darnell was first to give opening statements at the forum. Darnell turned to her 42-year law enforcement career as proof of experience and said her background working for the Gainesville Police Department (30 years), running the county jail, serving as court security, warrant delivery and management of the communications center made her the best choice for re-election.
“I was field tested in 1990,” Darnell said about working for the Gainesville Police Department during the murder investigations of five University of Florida students killed by Danny Rolling in late August 1990.
Darnell said she is the first female elected sheriff in Alachua County and has served in the position since 2006.
State Rep. Clovis Watson, Jr. also shared his background in law enforcement during opening statements. “My experience as a police officer going back 20 years well suits me,” Watson, Jr. said about why he is qualified to becoTme sheriff. That background includes serving as a patrolman, a training officer, and an initiator of a community policing program. He moved up in law enforcement to sergeant and deputy chief and then moved over to serve the City of Alachua as a city manager and also taught government courses as an adjunct professor.
The hour-long questions and answers format revealed that both candidates share similar priorities for Alachua County.
On the topic of the role of deputies in schools, Darnell said they “Provide the initial face of security,” and are mentors that help students see law enforcement in a positive light. In Alachua County, since 2012, Darnell said the policy is to no longer make arrests of children under the age of 12.
Watson, Jr. said, “We need security in schools.” He emphasized that deputies in schools can help mentor students by teaching right from wrong and in doing so can’t start to interrupt the “school to jail pipeline.”
Programs that make students comfortable with law enforcement, “Opens the dialogue and teaches kids to have a rapport with law enforcement and teaches law enforcement better rapport with students,” he said.
On racial disparities and use of force, Darnell said the ACSO has required training in racial disparity and arrest alternatives and has reduced arrest rates of adults by 60 percent.
Officers are required to de-escalate situations to the best of their ability and try to eliminate use of force, Darnell said. “This policy has been in place for many years,” she said and that it is “Mentioned no less than three times,” in guidelines and that verbal warnings come always before physical measures.
There is also a duty to report, and a duty to intervene taught in the code of ethics training and use of force is modeled after Florida guidelines,” Darnell said.
Watson, Jr. said law enforcement, “Can’t let emotions get the best of us,” and that they shouldn’t see everyone with a hoodie as someone who is a threat.
“We have an obligation and responsibility to de-escalate,” he said. “We have to make sure law enforcement is trained to deal with people with mental issues, he added and said that with enough training, law enforcement can offer good rapport to address escalation.
When asked about the relationship between police and people of color and the employment of white supremacists and domestic abusers, Darnell said that Alachua County has zero tolerance for officers who are charged with domestic violence and they cannot work in State of Florida after such charges. “We need to have a national no-rehire of officers who abuse,” she said.
Building relationships with the community means “treating all residents with justice and fairness,” Darnell said about law enforcement relations.
Watson, Jr. said officers need to, “Take the time with people. We must reach out to the communities not (just) when there is unrest and establish a level of trust and rapport. Get to know our names, we get to know their names.”
Both candidates agreed that the language around the issue of Qualified Immunity in some law enforcement policies needs to be updated and clarified when asked about choke holds. “The wording is difficult,” Darnell said about terms such as “willful versus reckless. It’s hard to get into the head of an officer.”
Watson, Jr. said, “You don’t want to have a chilling effect (on law enforcement), but hold them accountable when they are reckless.”
Watson, Jr. referred to the Eric Garner case where a man was approached about cigarettes by officers and ended up dead. “Don’t enforce a misdemeanor with a force for a felon,” he said, and added that a choke hold should only happen if an officer’s life is in danger.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and raids was another discussion addressed along with rebuilding relationships with latino community members.
Darnell said she works with a local latino women’s network and has signed U visas for victims of crimes. The issue comes up frequently at the jail, she said. “In that situation, you never should ask what nationality or for documents,” Darnell said. “That is inappropriate. They are in a frightened position."
Watson, Jr. said he worked along side migrant workers in the farming areas in La Crosse and Alachua and helped established fair policies in the legislative background to support those people and make sure they were treated equally, and received counselors to help them understand the system.
“Never question people about nationality or ethnicity,” he said.
On no-knocks warrants both candidates were against the action. “At ACSO it is a rare exception requiring a judge’s signature,” Darnell said. “If we have to, it is vetted at every single level.”
Watson, Jr. said, “The devastation we have seen. We don’t want to be a part of that in Alachua County.”
On marijuana arrests and racial disparities Watson, Jr, said he pushed bills in Tallahassee affecting juveniles and wants to prevent people from going to jail for possession of small amounts. He said he voted for legalizing medical marijuana.
Darnell addressed a “myth that has been perpetuated for years” about data of people arrested for possession of marijuana.
“There is a misunderstanding that I have authority of who gets booked and taken into jail or who is released from jail,” she said. "There are people coming into Alachua County jail from other jurisdictions."
“Very, very few” of the arrests for possession of marijuana come from ACSO, she said. There has to be a bigger violation for a person to receive a possession of marijuana charge such as a warrant or a weapon possession as a convicted felon, and then the marijuana charge is added to that.
Mental health policies, training and outreach is a priority for both candidates.
When calls for “defunding the police” happen, Darnell said she hopes turns in to reallocations of funding for programs such as mental health, not defunding police.
Darnell want to establish a “Central receiving center” with help of local hospitals. “It can be done in Alachua County,” she said.
Watson, Jr. said it is disappointing that Florida is 48th in mental funding. His interpretation is that Defunding is not the intent of protestors. “It’s reallocation toward mental health, training. Non-sworn people who will engage in the community,” he said. “Not to judge, be sensitive to the issue, the culture.
“We line our jails up with people with mental issues and we need to assess and do better,” Watson, Jr. said.
Again, the candidates agreed on ending cash bail practices that create racial disparities.
Watson, Jr. said, there needs to be an effort to coordinate with the state’s attorney, judges and public defenders on the issue of ending cash bail.
“With a cash bond, we need to look at putting someone in jail, they have no way of getting out.”
Darnell agreed that “there are inequities to it.”
Bail should be “Based on the person’s scoring of criminal history and propensities to violence,” she said and added that there needs to be a “balance of victim and offender rights.”
In closing statements, Watson, Jr. said, “They will have a sheriff in me who will bring people together.”
Darnell said “I’m the only candidate with professional law enforcement certification for 40 years. I’m not a politician, I am a sheriff.”