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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Future of Gainesville police K-9 unit unclear after commission meeting

Police chief expressed a commitment to diversity

<p>Gainesville Chief of Police Lonnie Scott speaks about the K9 unit during the city commission’s special meeting Wednesday, Nov 16, 2022.</p>

Gainesville Chief of Police Lonnie Scott speaks about the K9 unit during the city commission’s special meeting Wednesday, Nov 16, 2022.

After an emotional and contentious special meeting of the Gainesville City Commission Nov. 16, the future of the Gainesville police K-9 unit, and its role in law enforcement, remains uncertain. 

The Nov. 16 meeting, which was called by Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker and saw dozens of community members speaking both for and against the unit, was a culmination of months-long public outrage over the mauling of Terrell Bradley by a GPD K-9 in July. 

About 100 community members were in attendance at the meeting’s peak, with many calling for the abolition of the unit. However, the future direction of law enforcement policy on the matter isn’t as clear.

One public commenter at the meeting noted the problem with the K-9 unit is systemic and serves officers rather than the public. 

“They feel safe using these weapons against us because it means that they don’t have to do any of the work,” he said. “They can just go out to these communities that are underserved, Black, Hispanic and enact violence.”

At the meeting, Duncan-Walker stated the perspectives of community members are vital to the discussion.

“Understand that your voices are critical to this conversation,” she said. “I know I for one will take into account everything that you have to say, because, at the end of the day, this is all about you.”

Duncan-Walker proposed a motion, which passed, to examine what local law enforcement would look like in the absence of a K-9 unit and how other localities deal with the issue. The motion also seeks a cultural audit of the K-9 unit. 

An ex-Black officer on the unit, Edward Ratliff, alleged a racist culture in a federal lawsuit against the city last year. The case is set to proceed to a jury trial in April 2023. 

Duncan-Walker didn’t respond to The Alligator’s requests for comment.

Ed Book, an incoming member of the commission, was hesitant to provide a definitive stance on the issue because he won’t be a sitting city official until January. However, he expressed faith in Gainesville’s law enforcement leadership.

“I have confidence in both Chief Scott and before him Chief Jones, and they would not allow systemic problems to occur,” he said, referring to the current police chief Lonnie Scott and his predecessor, Tony Jones.

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Much of the opposition to the K-9 unit comes from the public not fully understanding the difficult circumstances police officers often face, Scott said.

“They don’t have to go into places that we have to go in,” he said. “They don’t have to encounter people that we have to encounter.”

Much of the public attention should be redirected toward stopping gun violence, he said, and K-9s were a necessary tool for law enforcement in dangerous situations. He also argued injuries of citizens at the hands of law enforcement could largely be avoided if citizens simply cooperated with police officers. 

He objected to allegations of a racist culture at the department by pointing out the department’s leadership over the last decade.

“The chief that’s been there since 2010 was African-American. Last time I checked, I’m African-American,” he said. “Who thinks that we’re going to stand by [and] allow that to happen?”

Scott also expressed dissatisfaction with the lack of diversity in the K-9 unit and promised to address the problem.

“I can guarantee you that we will increase our diversity in that unit,” he said. “We shouldn’t have a unit, particularly one that deals with encounters that are so sensitive, particularly dealing with K-9s, that is not diverse.” 

Contact Omar at Follow him on Twitter @OAteyah. 

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Omar Ateyah

Omar Ateyah is a third-year journalism student and the Alligator's Race and Equity reporter. He previously served as the Alligator's crime reporter and as a news assistant on the Metro Desk. He enjoys going on long, thoughtful walks. 

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