Alachua County Sheriff candidates discussed COVID-19 response, police accountability, the school-to-prison pipeline and decarceration at a Saturday forum.
The live, online forum was hosted by Gainesville Dream Defenders, Florida Immigrant Coalition and Farm Workers Association of Florida. Incumbent Sheriff Sadie Darnell and Clovis Watson Jr. are vying for the position in a countywide election Aug. 18.
The forum was conducted over Zoom and live-streamed on Facebook. The hosts asked the candidates questions about changes they would make as sheriff and later allowed the public to also ask questions.
Darnell said she has spent 13 years of her 42-year law enforcement career as Alachua County’s Sheriff. She also said she’s the only candidate with experience running Alachua County Jail and the combined communications center, which responds to emergency calls.
Clovis Watson said he was a police officer in Alachua County for about 20 years before becoming a Florida state representative. He also mentioned he began a police explorers program while he was an officer.
When asked about divesting funds from the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office to community resources, Darnell said ACSO has implemented transitional programs at the jail, which address the high rates of individuals who return to jail. When she began as sheriff in 2006, there were more than 1,000 inmates at the jail. She believes including a transition specialist has reduced the inmate population, which was 651 as of today.
Watson said he believes ACSO needs to explore ways to allocate its $93.6 million budget. He mentioned hiring civilian personnel to interact and establish trust with the community to improve the relationship between citizens and police officers.
“What we’re experiencing now is a lack of trust of law enforcement,” Watson said. “We’re not there to judge, We’re there to protect the community and serve.”
Use of force
Darnell said she has taken instances of abuse at the jail seriously after an incident occurring in 2019 and two others that occurred this year. Prior to those three incidents, abuse at the jail has never reached the point of criminal misconduct or battery, she said.
“Each of the detention officers that were involved had critical training so that was also concerning,” Darnell said, “I believe it speaks to the stressors that everyone is under either because of COVID or because of social unrest.”
Consistent de-escalation training for deputies during patrols and in jail would decrease excessive use of force situations, Watson said. He believes there needs to be a clear culture of what is and isn’t acceptable to ensure no one is harmed in the hands of the ACSO.
“We have to make sure that our men and women in uniform have a level of sensitivity with those who may look different than them, who may worship different than them, who may see things different than them,” Watson said.
Darnell said the number of arrests has decreased since the beginning of the pandemic in March, especially for low-risk crimes.
“The message of the jail being unsanitary is not correct,” Darnell said, adding that jail staff sanitize the building twice a shift with germicide.
A moderator asked Darnell to address the recent outbreak at the jail, where an inmate who tested positive for COVID-19 was kept in quarantine for eight days instead of the standard 14 days recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Because of the jail’s capacity, the length of quarantine was decided after consulting with the county health department, she said. The majority of the inmates who tested positive have been asymptomatic. Only two were sent to the infirmary,
When asked about mistakes ACSO made during the crisis, Darnell said she didn’t believe ACSO made any mistakes because the pandemic has been a learning experience. The rate of positive cases in the jail is lower than the rate of positive cases in the community, she added.
Watson said he would avoid arresting people for non-violent offenses, such as driving with a suspended driver’s license. Minor offenses can be addressed through sworn complaints, charges filed directly to the state that allow the defendant to stay out of jail.
If there are currently inmates in the jail for minor crimes, such a suspended driver’s license or an open container of alcohol, ACSO should find ways to release, Watson said. Fewer inmates means a safer environment for other inmates as well as detention officers, he said.
“Everyone who violates a small portion of the law really doesn’t have to go to jail every time,” Watson said.
Watson said he would try to keep people out of jail even after COVID-19 concerns are over. He believes ACSO also has to do a better job assessing people for mental illness before arresting them and putting them in jail.
School resource officers
School resource officers in Alachua County receive racial and implicit bias training, Darnell said. These officers also train to deal with adverse childhood experiences and limit arrests to certain criminal behaviors.
Darnell said she edited the school contract in 2015. School resource officers aren’t allowed to arrest children younger than 12.
“That has significantly reduced the number of arrests by us and by the Gainesville Police Department.” she said. “We have partnered together over the years in this effort and will continue to do so.”
In some parts of the U.S., children as young as 7 have been taken away from their schools in handcuffs, Watson said. He believes ACSO has to police differently.
To Watson, school resource officers should protect and mentor children. School resource officers are important for helping children feel comfortable with police. He believes they shouldn’t be there to create a school-to-prison pipeline and arrest children as young as 12, 13 or 14.
“They don’t need to go to jail for having a bad day,” Watson said. “Young people don’t always handle stress well, and they don’t need to be criminalized.”
In her closing statement, Darnell said she’s committed to being a part of ACSO’s transformation.
“In the world today, the societal ills based upon lack of funding for mental health housing, education, food, medical care,” she said. “All those things have led to this horrible situation that everything flows downhill and lands in the lap of law enforcement.”
In his closing statement, Watson emphasized his focus on equality while he served as a Florida legislator.
“I will address the needs of Alachua County,” he said. “Everyone will feel fair and treated right, including my fellow law enforcement officers and deputies.”
This story has been updated to reflect the fact that Clovis Watson's full name should be Clovis Watson Jr. The Alligator originally reported differently.