The MyVillage Project Sheriff’s Forum at the IBEW Union Hall on Jacksonville’s Eastside last night, moderated by Dawn Lopez, was the second attempt in a week for the field of Sheriff’s candidates to introduce themselves and field concerns from the local African-American community. The first was at the Supervisor of Elections sponsored St. Paul’s AME Church Forum in NW Jacksonville last week, one where a significant number of attendees attempted to leave before the Sheriff’s forum; they were cajoled into staying by Denise Lee. It’s an unprecedented moment for community dialogue about law enforcement in this city. And a paradoxically interesting position for these candidates to be in.
They run to replace John Rutherford, and to a man pledge reforms in the bureaucracy and improvements in diversity — it was a leit motif last night. Yet these are all police lifers. Thus, they find themselves having to deal with the harshest critiques of policing from those who are most committed to the communities that see more law enforcement than any other. It’s a paradox that some of them seem more comfortable with than others.
Five candidates participated in the forum, three Republicans: Jimmy Holderfield, endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police and a half dozen other unions, whose voice booms throughout a building like that of a Baptist preacher; Mike Williams, Rutherford’s choice, who talks “Southside” as one forum attendee put it, lacking that visceral connection to the “working man and woman” that constitutes Holderfield’s base, that critical mass that might push him through to the runoff; Lonnie McDonald, the baritone-voiced southern gentleman who spent a couple of years in Afghanistan before coming home and running for Sheriff, in a crowded field where the fundraising went in five other directions.
And the two Democrats: Ken Jefferson, who got 40% against Rutherford four years ago, in the year Alvin Brown shocked the world, known as the public face of the JSO for a few years, and almost a certainty to get 30% on March 24; and Dr. Tony Cummings, a largely self-financed candidate who has a lot of sound ideas for reform, but is going to have a tough time overcoming Jefferson’s name recognition.
These guys have spent their entire careers together, and a lot of time at these forums. They probably never, at least as politicians, faced a crowd as skeptical as the one tonight though. For observers of law enforcement in Jacksonville, it was a perestroika moment. These would-be Sheriffs were forced to discuss matters that have been on the backburner throughout the Rutherford era, such as bureaucracy, civilian review boards, and Angela Corey’s influence on juvenile sentencing. Additionally, they talked about each other — and the inside baseball proved to be the most interesting material of the evening.
The first segment of the evening involved the 60 second candidate introductions, and you could tell even then that some candidates were stepping their game up. Specifically, Ken Jefferson, who lambasted the other candidates for “talking about the budget” when “kids are lying in the streets in pools of blood.” Jefferson, who has become a fixture on boards in the African American community and beyond, clearly sees this campaign as his last shot to change the functional reality of policing in Jacksonville.
After the introductions, the candidates dealt with audience questions. The first one, regarding what the first 90 days of a given candidate’s administration would look like were he elected, set the tone. Holderfield promised increased diversity, a theme echoed throughout the evening, via a “change up in administration.”
“Everyone sitting on the 3rd floor of the building can’t look like me,” he said. “My staff looks like Jacksonville. We’ve got to do that to make sure that we don’t have another Ferguson.”
Cummings, meanwhile, delineated his reform agenda, which includes expanding community affairs and increasing the incidences of civil citations for juvenile offenders — an initiative strongly opposed by State Attorney Angela Corey — to “give children a second chance”.
From there, candidates were asked how they would increase engagement with the African American community and reduce incidents of incarceration. The candidates’ answers were revealing.
Williams borrowed the Rutherford line about “prevention, intervention, and enforcement” being central to successful law enforcement. He vows to “maximize civil citations” and “crank the Jacksonville Journey back up.”
The Jacksonville Journey was an initiative by former Mayor John Peyton that sought to address crime by dealing with its roots. It is credited with reducing crime, but has been gradually defunded in recent years as Jacksonville deals with pension-related fiscal issues.
Holderfield, meanwhile, maintained that police “training has not changed in 35 years. People are different from us — we need to understand that.” He added that current tactics “lead to charges not being dropped” for African-American offenders, along with “decisions by the State Attorney’s Office.”
That last bit got a strong reaction from the predominantly African American crowd, a demographic where there is an aversion to Angela Corey’s approach to the office.
From there, the discussion got more heated. A representative from the local Southern Christian Leadership Conference chapter, by way of asking a question, observed that “police advisory boards will not work in Florida because they lack subpoena power; they are an exercise in mental masturbation.”
This led to Cummings, an African-American who was raised in one of the city’s most crime ridden neighborhoods, vowing to fight for citizen review boards even though it’s difficult.
“We’re going to fight to get the public a seat at the table,” he said, “or there will be no justice at the end of the day.”
The discussion then turned to how to resolve the most pressing issue that impacts the African American community. Holderfield again impressed the crowd, saying that “we’ve totally lost community trust. How do we rebuild it?”
For him, it comes down to training and creating a face of the police department that “looks like the community,” and resolving morale issues internally, since “morale is lower than it has ever been.” Others, like Ken Jefferson, advocate real community policing.
“It starts with leadership. I want to reintroduce the department to the community. Walk the communities, knock on doors, ask how I can serve you,” he said.
Cummings echoed these points, and went further, referring to the persistence of violent crime and the disproportionately high incarceration of African American males, saying that “if we don’t have conversations, we are spinning our wheels.”
Cummings was equally adamant about addressing problems with diversity in the department, especially in the detective and SWAT teams, saying that “cronyism and the good ol’ boy system is real.” The department, he argues, needs to “aggressively seek out minority candidates.”
“We could not find enough African American and Hispanic candidates, and I find that baffling,” he continued, saying that the requirement at the time was a high school diploma.
Holderfield, the ultimate insider, picked up this theme.
“I’ve made sure we had diversity, even though some said I was playing politics. I know the system. I know the changes that need to be made,” he said.
The conversation then turned to one of the more crime ridden areas in the city: the 32209 zip code. The questioner wanted to know if the candidates were over there before they were running for office. Skepticism buzzed in the crowd, including the man behind me, who said “they were getting barbeque on their off day.”
Mike Williams, who was having a problem connecting with the crowd for much of the evening, didn’t help himself when he cited “walks with MAD DADS” and working with “Denise Lee on Blight.” The crowd groaned in response.
Holderfield and Jefferson did better with the question. The former grew up nearby, did a lot of police work over there, and demonstrated familiarity with the subsistence level realities of the area. “95% of the kids in 32206 and 32209 are on free or reduced lunch,” he said, adding that there is a demonstrated correlation “between poverty, lack of business, infrastructure [problems], and crime.”
Jefferson even went further. “I didn’t just show up with a bunch of fish (for a fish fry) and say that I love you. I’m there. [The people over there] respect me. As sheriff, I’ll continue to be there.”
The most heated portion of the forum was the section where candidates asked each other questions. This revealed real tensions among the field of candidates that haven’t been exposed in early stage advertising, but the most noteworthy part was when Williams brought up Holderfield serving as a Union leader, asking him if he could make tough decisions.
Williams served it up. Holderfield knocked it out of the park.
“Mike, that sounds like a question that John Rutherford would ask me himself,” he said to cheers from the crowd, before itemizing that he had fought for “raises and benefits for you and your father both.”
Holderfield came back with a question for Williams on Jacksonville’s controversial red light cameras program, to which Williams said that the program had gone too far. Holderfield’s rebuttal was devastating, saying that Williams had a “good response”, since he’d basically said the same thing three months ago.
This forum underscored the basic tensions in this race. Williams and Holderfield seem increasingly cognizant that they are battling for one runoff spot, as Jefferson’s name recognition should carry him through to 30%. It will be interesting to see if either of their camps drops opposition research or negative mailpieces against the other in an effort to take out their main opponent. For now, it looks to be a clean campaign. But only one of these guys is going to be in the mix past March 24.