JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Five people who hope to become the next sheriff of Jacksonville met together Wednesday night and answered your questions about the biggest issues facing the city.
The candidates vying to earn the votes of Duval County residents include four Democrats -- Lakesha Burton, Wayne Clark, Tony Cummings and Ken Jefferson. T.K. Waters is the only Republican candidate.
Topics that spotlighted the News4JAX-Jacksonville University Public Policy Institute debate included violent crime on the streets, bridging relationships with the community and building trust through transparency.
FULL AND UNCUT: Jacksonville Sheriff’s Debate at Jacksonville University | GALLERY: Behind the scenes of the 2022 sheriff’s debate
The murder capital of Florida
Duval County has the highest per capita homicide rate in the state, and Jacksonville is still known as Florida’s murder capital.
We asked the candidates what they would do about homicides and violent crime in Duval County.
RELATED: Jacksonville’s deadly violence trending upward in 1st half of 2022 -- but not where you might think
Waters, who was first to be questioned, highlighted his role as the former chief of investigations at the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office. He said he started a program at JSO called the Violence Reduction Strategy, which focused on finding at-risk young men in the community and helping them improve their lives.
“I went to 450 houses myself and knocked on each one of those doors. No other candidate understands the violent crime problem as we do,” Waters said. “We are prepared, we are ready, we will move forward and we will continue to build.”
Burton said guns, gangs and drugs drive the issue of violent crime in Jacksonville neighborhoods, and she said it’s all been a problem for years.
“The question is what have we done differently?” Burton asked. “We have to start looking from a different lens and understand that we have to address our crime problem from a different approach.”
She said that approach would be a comprehensive one, which focuses on education, prevention and enforcement.
Clark said he views murders as a “Jacksonville problem” -- something that’s an issue all over the city and not just something that’s isolated to any particular neighborhood. He spoke about his past experience leading a program called Operation Safe Streets.
“We used data and real-time intelligence to tell us who the bad guys were, where they hung out and how to deploy our people, and we were able to reduce murders and violent crime in this city from 2007 to 2010 to a 25-year low,” Clark said.
Clark said he believes properly educating young people would help reduce violent crime.
Cummings echoed past comments he’s made on the topic and said violence is an issue that is “hemorrhaging” the city of Jacksonville, and he took aim at Waters, JSO’s former chief of investigations.
“We’ve had three consecutive years of more than 100 murders back-to-back, 400 shootings every year. Seventy percent of our homicide cases, correction, murder cases go unsolved, Mr. Waters is in charge of that as chief of investigations of homicide,” Cummings said.
When given a chance to respond, Waters noted that Duval County had 130 recorded homicides in 2021.
“That’s not good, but it’s down,” Waters said. “We’ve been recognized nationally as an agency for the work that we’ve done to decrease our homicide rate. We’re gonna continue to do that.”
Jefferson spoke about his 24 years of experience with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, serving part of his term as the public information officer.
“My approach would be proactivity, visibility, using intelligence-led data to take me where I need to go to address these issues, saturate those areas, weed out the bad apples in that area,” Jefferson said. “But when you weed something out, you’ve got to put something back in, and we will provide mentorship, we will provide programs, we will provide various things for the community.”
Race relations & trust in the community
Nat Glover is the first and only Black sheriff in the 20th century in the state of Florida. Of the candidates running, whoever is chosen will become the second.
We asked, as sheriff, what would the candidates do about race relations and developing trust between Jacksonville police and the Black community.
“I think there’s a belief that we don’t get along with our African American, our Black community. I’m a guy that I believe in sitting down and talking. I believe in going out and meeting people. I believe in being accessible. I’ve been accessible my entire career,” Waters said. “I meet with people that may be an adversary, but by the time we get done talking, we’re advocates for one another, and we’re friends, and I think it requires us to get closer to our community, that it requires us to to be closer in our everyday life and our work life.”
Burton said it’s important that the next sheriff of Jacksonville has had the “pulse of the community.” She said that, right now, we have “two cities in one.”
“The truth of the matter is there are communities all over our city that have a distrust for the police. That’s unacceptable and we have to address it,” Burton said. “We do have racial issues, and we have to address it. After the murder of George Floyd, my eyes were wide open when my administration wouldn’t talk about those tough conversations regarding race.”
She added, “I’ll have those conversations as your sheriff.”
Clark acknowledged a divide in the city and said that trust can only be built through a relationship and accountability from the top, and he said he believes in community policing.
“I think one of the reasons why Sheriff Glover was so successful when he was sheriff because he was from the neighborhood. He understood that to be sheriff, you had to be willing to go everywhere, to serve everyone.”
Cummings said the trust between the Sheriff’s Office and the public has been broken for decades. He proposed a public accountability office inside the JSO -- something he said other sheriff’s offices and departments are doing in Florida. He also suggested expanding the size of the community affairs division.
“We need to get the public on board, give them a seat at the table and make sure they help us guide our policies and be efficient and effective with your tax dollars,” Cummings said.
Jefferson said one of the major things he speaks about is transparency and that he will ensure members of the community are treated fairly and equally.
“I come from the other side of the tracks. I grew up in Washington Heights. I lived in the back of a station wagon eating bologna sandwiches for dinner,” Jefferson said. “I understand the plight of certain groups of people and I can address it as your sheriff.”
Shootings involving police officers & transparency
Police shootings and allegations of excessive force by police officers are a growing concern around the country.
We asked the candidates what they would do to ensure accountability, transparency and public confidence in the handling of such cases.
Burton said transparency starts with simply being honest and she said it’s critical for JSO to build that trust with the community -- and that starts with leadership.
“I commit to you that I will be accessible to each of you. On all critical incidents, I’ll be available for the community so they’ll know what’s going on,” Burton said.
She said much of the transparency concerns come from shootings involving police officers and unreleased bodycam footage. She wants to ensure bodycam footage is released in a timely matter.
“So what I think we should do, we’re at a critical point where we need to involve FDLE in officer-involved shootings,” Burton said.
Clark said transparency “is a process” and that trust has to be built. He also spoke about bodycam footage.
“I believe that, short of a court order, within a certain time period, we should release body cameras. I know there will be times during an investigation that we can’t release that information, but we owe it to the public to be transparent,” he said.
Clark added that an agreement should be signed with FDLE to have them investigate all shootings involving police and in-custody deaths. When it comes to complaints of excessive force, he believes an internal dashboard should keep track of those.
Cummings said transparency means “putting the people in charge” of the oversight and accountability of resources.
“That is sorely needed inside the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, and I’m gonna make it happen,” he said. “I’m the only candidate on this stage that supports the public accountability office and civilian review boards.”
Jefferson said he too will propose getting the FDLE involved in shootings involving police and in-custody deaths to show the public that a third-party is investigating. It’s something he said when he ran for sheriff eight years ago.
“It’s not just another law enforcement agency, they govern all police officers,” he said. “They determine whether or not you will maintain your certification.”
Waters said the JSO averages about 10 shootings involving police officers every year, and he said that during his tenure as chief of investigations, he went to every one of those shootings in Jacksonville, and he said JSO would collect evidence and hand that information off to the State Attorney’s Office -- a state-run organization.
“I can tell you they’re fact-based investigations, they aren’t based on emotion,” Waters said.
What stood out? Our political analyst weighs in
The debate was moderated by News4JAX anchor and host of This Week in Jacksonville Kent Justice and made possible with the help of our political analyst Rick Mullaney, who’s the JU Public Policy Institute Director.
What are some of Mullaney’s takeaways? He and Kent share their thoughts.
Final thoughts from the candidates
News4JAX reporter Scott Johnson caught up with the five candidates after the debate.
Here are some of their final thoughts they hope you remember when casting your vote.
Looking ahead to the election
The five candidates are seeking your vote in the race to replace Sheriff Mike Williams, who resigned in June after it was revealed that he had violated the city charter because he no longer lived in Duval County.
RELATED CONTENT: News4JAX Voter’s Guide
Jacksonville elections are unitary, meaning all Duval County voters of any or no party can cast ballots in this race in August, with the two candidates receiving the most votes advancing to a second election -- essentially a runoff -- in November.
Before you cast your vote, we’ve spoken exclusively with each candidate. Here are those interviews:
This Week In Jacksonville