The temperature is heating up, and so is the race for Alachua County Sheriff.
Current Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell and Florida State Rep. Clovis Watson Jr. are both vying to be the county’s sheriff and will go head-to-head in the upcoming Aug. 18 primary election. Florida has closed primaries, which means that voters can only vote for candidates running with the political party the voter is registered with. Darnell and Watson, both Democrats, discussed police accountability, criminal justice reform and sentencing reform and policy at a Tuesday evening forum.
The forum, held on Zoom, was a partnership of Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, Families Against Mandatory Minimums and Greenhouse Church.
Darnell said $3 million of ACSO’s budget goes to community programs, and the budget hasn’t increased in the last 10-15 years. She said she doesn’t want the budget to decrease.
She also said the city and county need to do more to address drug addictions, which are a large issue in the community.
“Many young people are turning to a life of crime because they feel they have no other options,” she said. “They have no opportunities. They have no hope.”
Law enforcement needs to do more for the Alachua County community, Watson said. He spoke of a young boy who died after being electrocuted on city property. While addressing the situation, he said he often met with the boy’s family and their spiritual leaders.
More funding needs to go to mental health and counseling to improve community relations, Watson said. Watson also believes racial and cultural sensitivity training should be required.
"The community needs law enforcement, and law enforcement needs the community," he said.
Florida has police misconduct laws in place, but not every law enforcement agency follows them, Darnell said. Under her supervision, Darnell said Alachua County is proactive in reporting misconduct. The record of an officer accused of wrongdoing will follow them, she said.
In excessive use of force cases, Darnell said she would immediately start an administrative and criminal investigation. She said she followed this procedure when a correctional officer battered an inmate at the Alachua County Jail in April.
Watson said he would follow the same protocol in excessive use of force situations. In the case of George Floyd, he said he would have moved more swiftly as the evidence against the officers who murdered Floyd was overwhelming. Law enforcement's responsibility is to enforce laws, not to punish or judge, Watson said.
In order to deescalate situations, officers must gain a better understanding of people from different communities and with mental health issues, Watson said. Officers also need to hold other officers accountable, he added.
Criminal justice reforms
When asked about reforms, Darnell said she is open to reform but changes need to come from the Florida Sheriffs Association.
She said the association hired a researcher to suggest which reforms are necessary. However, she mentioned revisiting individual cases.
“There is a need to have some reform, but I also believe that we’ve got to include other people at the table from the standpoint of those who had become crime victims so that they are also represented,” she said.
Watson said this issue of reform is dear to him because he's met people who struggle to succeed in society because of previous mistakes. He spoke about a 72-year-old who was denied a job as a city bus driver for a felony that dated back more than 50 years.
To Watson, reform isn't about who you can put in jail, but who you can keep out. He said he believes all mandatory minimum prison sentences need to be reformed.
With 38 years of experience as a police officer and representative, Watson said he has a unique perspective that can produce change. He said he would draw on his experiences as someone who grew up in a housing project to unite communities with positivity.
"I will be the sheriff of all people," he said.
As sheriff for 13-and-a-half years, Darnell said her track record speaks for itself. She has implemented trainings, increased oversight and run a jail while also running municipal policing for an entire county.
"I'm not a politician," she said. "I'm a sheriff."
Candidates for Alachua County Sheriff debated Tuesday during a forum held via Zoom conference.