Sheriff candidates debate gangs, tactics, experience

Ken Jefferson and Mike Williams are running to be Jacksonville's next sheriff

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Candidates Ken Jefferson and Mike Williams met Thursday night at Jacksonville University in a fiery debate on issues facing the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office. 

Jefferson, a Democrat, and Williams, a Republican, emerged from a field of seven candidates for sheriff of Jacksonville after the March primary. Duval County voters will make their final choice between these two men on Tuesday.

For one hour, the two candidates answered questions on gangs, violent crime, budgets, race relations, hiring and training. And the two have a very different notion of how the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office is perceived.

"There's a large distrust between the community and and the sheriff's office. I see it, I hear it every day," Jefferson said. "A lot of these people only see police officers three different occasions: on a traffic stop, if they're being arrested or on a call for service. We've got to get officers out of their cars and back into the communities."

"We solve cases in Jacksonville at a rate above the national average. In some cases double digits above the national average," Williams said. "We're only able to do that because we have a good relationship with the community and they do call us every day and give us tips and give us information to help us solve those crimes."

When asked for specifics about fighting the current wave of violent crime, Williams looked at programs that have worked before.

"We only need to look back to 2011, when we had the murder rate in Jacksonville as low as it has been since 1970. What's missing today from what we had in 2011 is 147 officers, a community service officer program of 92 officers that was a tremendous force multiplier for us ... And we had the Jacksonville Journey engaging our youth with prevention programs," Williams said. "We've got a road map of how to solve this problem, we just have to get back to that."

"The Jacksonville Journey was a great program, I'll have to agree," Jefferson said saying he's incorporated may of its ideas are in his plan. "We have got to realize that the role of a sheriff is not to make excuses. If we don't get the 147 officers that the sheriff fired -- if I'm elected as your sheriff, I won't come to you and cry and throw somebody else under the bus for my inefficiency as a sheriff to reduce crime. You have to take the leadership role and take responsibility for the office, and I'll do that."

Fighting gangs | Community, race relations | Policing techniques and tactics |
Claims and endorsements | Questions for each other
REPLAY: Watch entire sheriff's debate online

When it came time for the two men to ask questions of each other, Williams asked Jefferson why he plans to outsource budget matters and the investigation of police-involved shootings.

"What part of the responsibilities of sheriff are you going to keep and what part are you going to farm out?" Williams asked Jefferson.

"I never said I was lacking budget experience. The CFO already exists in the form of a budget chief, so I'm not creating a position," Jefferson asked. "I did say that I will turn all police-involved shootings to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for them to conduct all inquiries involving police shootings to show transparency and save taxpayer money. ... It's prudent. It's wise. And as far as surrounding yourself with good people, you should know that. You were a director."

Jefferson then asked Williams: "Will you promise the citizens that you will stop the nonsense of silly politics with negative ads and stick to the issues at hand?" 

"There are things that this community needs to know before they select their next sheriff," Williams replied. "I think the experience of the men in this race is incredibly important. I believe the fact that you have never supervised a single person at JSO; you've never held any rank; you never managed one dollar of the budget or been responsible for reducing crime in this community by 1 percent is an important factor and it's something that should be known. I believe experience is a factor in this race. This is, after all, a big job interview."

The questions News4Jax anchor Kent Justice asked were developed by the station's political team as well as those solicited from viewers through social media.

Supporters of each candidate in the audience at JU's Terry Concert Hall cheered for their man at the beginning and end of the debate, but undecided voters who attended said that while the candidates gave some good information, they didn't close the deal.

"They both brought up some good ideas and they had a lot to say, but I'm still kind of undecided right now," Janice Parker said. "So I've still got to do a little research on both candidates to see where I stand."

I just think they're both extremely very qualified, if each in his own way," Conrad Markle said. "Ken hasn't been in the places that Mike has been in, but he's also been here just as long. The spangle is nice, but that's not everything. I think they both show a lot of leadership skills."

Voters are running out of time to make their choice. Early voting continues at 18 places around Jacksonville through Sunday, then all precincts will be open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Tuesday.

About the Authors:

Jim Piggott is the reporter to count on when it comes to city government and how it will affect the community.