Sheriff candidates learn lessons from Ferguson

Candidates all say it's important for officers to have strong ties to community

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The Justice Department will not charge the police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, who shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown.

But a newly released report shows systemic racial discrimination in the Ferguson Police Department and criminal justice system.

The seven candidates for Jacksonville's next sheriff spoke with News4Jax Wednesday about how they will learn from what happened in Ferguson.

The candidates agree in some areas about how to deal with residents who don't like police. But some have very specific plans to change how the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office investigates itself in light of Ferguson's case.

One common thread from the seven candidates is that Ferguson shows how important it is for police to already have strong ties to neighborhoods that may mistrust police.

"They didn't have enough diversity," Rob Schoonover said. "I think we do have that, but my plan as sheriff, we want to get back in those neighborhoods, breaking down those barriers, gaining that trust again from that community."

"There was an issue between that agency and that community long before the shooting occurred," Mike Williams said. "And as a leader of a law enforcement organization, you cannot allow that to happen."

"What happened in Ferguson is a real tragedy," Lonnie McDonald said. "In that situation, if they had the proper equipment -- a Taser, a less lethal option -- we might not be having this conversation."

"I wouldn't be just sitting back behind my desk right now," Jimmy Holderfield said. "I would be out in that community, in that neighborhood, wherever the problem may be, addressing it -- straight up -- easing the tensions and coming up with plans to make Jacksonville a safer city."

Ferguson is one reason numerous candidates want to change how they investigate officers who shoot someone.

"I would, on my first day sign, an MOU with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement that we want them to investigate all of our police-involved shootings," Ken Jefferson said. "Nothing would change other than that the cold case unit of the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office would not investigate those shootings."

"If they have body cameras to show the transparency of what happened in that incident, we could eliminate a lot of the speculation and guesswork that goes into this," McDonald said. "I strongly support body cameras."

"I'm the only candidate in the race right now that wants a civilian review and accountability review board," Tony Cummings said. "That would at least get the public at the table in the beginning."

Candidates also said their officers will be trained to develop individual relationships with people in the neighborhoods they patrol.

"One of my plans is to go back to the beat system where officers are assigned an area, he takes pride and responsibility in that area, but he's also getting to know the people in that area on a day-to-day basis," Schoonover said. "We've lost that."

"You have to be as understanding as possible and give every opportunity for the community to have dialogue with officers at an individual level," Jay Farhat said. "Because that's where you form those bonds."

"Any police officer at any time has to be professional, and we hold our people accountable," Williams said. "No matter what the situation is, professionalism is No. 1."

"People have to know who you are and they have to know where your heart is," Holderfield said. "They have to hold you accountable, and you have to follow up to show that your word is good for what you're telling them that you're going to do to help protect their communities."

Some candidates say the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office is much more racially diverse than Ferguson was. And they said reflecting Jacksonville's racial makeup in its police force is key.

"It's important that the sheriff recognize the dynamics of that community and have officers that reflect the dynamics of that community," Jefferson said. "If need be, we'll move officers. If we have an African-American pocket that needs to be patrolled by African-Americans, then that's what we'll do."

"We're going to make sure that this agency reflects what the community looks like," Holderfield said.

"You always want your agency to be a mirror image of the community that you live in," Farhat said. "You want to reflect all demographics: ethnicity, race, sex, religion. What you need to do is market your agency to those demographics that you're lacking in. And not only that, you have to do everything in your power to have as much transparency and accountability to the community that you service, because at the end of the day it all comes down to trust."

"People have to trust you," Cummings said. "If they trust you, they'll work well with you. It's a partnership. You treat everyone fairly, with respect, regardless of race, and they'll want to work with you."

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