As they gathered for a Northside forum to state reasons why they should be Jacksonville's next sheriff with two weeks before their special election, the city had just logged its 94th homicide of the year, according to Times-Union records.
And as four of the five sheriff candidates spoke about their race, city leaders were still investigating why the department was hit by "detected suspicious activity" over the weekend that caused computer problems but did not impact officer response times or service levels, police said.
Just minutes into the hour-long Northside Business Leaders Club's candidate forum, they were asked what the greatest challenge is for the Sheriff's Office, which one of them could lead if elected in an Aug. 23 special election or its runoff on Nov. 8.
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The biggest challenge is to make sure the Sheriff's Office is the "proper steward" of the $500 million budget, said retired Officer Tony Cummings. He said the department is "wasting money."
"They didn't know that it takes 23 seconds to answer a 911 call," he said. "You heard about the computer glitch? Folks, these are not coincidences. They are bad management and leadership. I will bring new leadership and management to the Sheriff's Office along with public oversight and accountability so you can monitor your tax dollars."
"Fractured communities" with residents who only see police when there is a crime is the greatest challenge, retired Officer Ken Jefferson answered next. Residents are being policed rather than served, and officers and their department must be proactive to stop crime before it happens, he said.
"They see drive-by cops; the only reason they stop is if they are enforcing the law, arresting someone or writing a citation," Jefferson said. "It took us a while to get to that point, but we have to change that image and I intend to change that as your sheriff because I will be out there, sleeves rolled up in the communities."
The biggest problem is police are "playing catch-up," said T.K. Waters, just retired as Sheriff's Office's chief of investigations and the lone Republican in the race. They have to give officers the resources to continue giving citizens the best service and quicker response times.
"We need to add the numbers we need, we can get close and make our patrol areas much smaller," Waters said. "That is one of the biggest challenges we have and that's one I plan to fix."
Changing the culture of officers so they understand their job is "to serve and protect," former Duval County Schools Police acting director Wayne Clark said. That means building trust in communities that seems to be lacking.
'We need to leverage our mentorship of all of our supervisors to understand that we have to have a multi-year reduction in violent crime and other issues in our city," Clark said. "We have to make sure that we go back to being that community policing agency that we desire. We need to get out of cars and talk to citizens to build that trust."
Retired Assistant Chief Lakesha Burton was unable to attend Tuesday's event. All were slated to run in next year's election until the unexpected June 10 resignation of former Sheriff Mike Williams forced the special election for the year left in his term.
City's gang problem nets mixed response
Cummings said the city does not have a gang problem, and that groups hanging out are improperly labeled by officers. If there are gangs, why hasn't the Sheriff's Office found "where the gang leaders are," he asked.
Clark said the city has non-traditional gangs but "just as deadly." The Sheriff's Office must educate youths in schools in ways to resist gang membership, as well as work with gang members to "give them a space to change" or "come down with the full weight of law enforcement" to get them off the street, he said.
Jefferson asserted that the community is "always going to have gangs in this city," saying the Sheriff's Office has records of where and when they operate. If elected, he said he will build relationships with communities near known gang areas to learn more to fight them and try to stop young men and women from being recruited into them.
Waters noted that he headed a Sheriff's Office gang unit program that brought officers and community groups to about 800 known members' homes to give them options to "keep you safe, keep you alive" and out of prison. He said he will continue to push those options because he is "totally done with seeing young men killed."
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Better transparency in police shooting investigations
The candidates were also asked about what their policy would be regarding transparency in the Sheriff's Office when it comes to investigations into officer shootings and if they support a civilian review board. Those investigations are currently conducted by the department, while the majority of state Sheriff's Offices have the Florida Department of Law Enforcement do an independent investigation.
Calling that another big issue, Jefferson said he plans to immediately bring in the FDLE to investigate all officer shootings and deaths of prisoners in custody, so Sheriff's Office personnel do not "investigate their own." The Sheriff's Office would also do its own internal investigation to ensure there were no policy violations while setting up a citizen commission to meet regularly about issues the community may have with the department.
Waters said the Sheriff's Office investigation into an officer shooting is "very clean" since the State Attorney's Office and medical examiner also do their own, separate inquests into cases. Confirming that "we have to do better, and we will do better," he has plans to directly message community members so they "know what's going on," although he does not like a civilian review board.
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Explaining that some parts of an investigation into officer incidents are confidential, Clark said he wants to set up a website that will list all complaints against officers for public viewing. Saying that people "deserve the right to know that," he also said he plans to better train younger officers to "de-escalate, how not to get into arguments" when they roll up. He also agreed it is time to let the FDLE do officer shooting investigations.
Cummings said the public is "the missing link," so community members must be involved to make sure the Sheriff's Office is doing everything right and ensure "transparency and trust." They must be invited into a civilian review board to make sure the Sheriff's Office is "doing you right by your tax dollars."
Duval County Property Appraiser and former Supervisor of Elections Jerry Holland was the moderator at Tuesday's event at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, held the day before a Jacksonville University Public Policy Institute's televised 8 p.m. debate on WJXT TV-4.
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This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: Candidates to replace Mike Williams as Jacksonville sheriff sound off