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Thursday, June 20, 2024

Tensions high at second Gainesville Police Department K-9 unit community meeting

Both proponents, opponents came out to speak

Gainesville’s second K-9 Unit community meeting to discuss the status of the Gainesville Police Department’s K-9 unit was met with anger from residents.

The second meeting to discuss the unit was held at Williams Elementary Tuesday night. About 30 people attended including retired police officers, city officials and community activists, all of whom voiced their opinions on whether the K-9 unit should be reinstated. 

The K-9 unit started to receive more attention following the arrest of Terrell Bradley, who lost his eye after a K-9 attacked him. 

Since Bradley’s incident, the unit has gone back and forth in terms of reinstatement and disbandment. It was temporarily suspended in December and then reinstated. Then just after two weeks, it was disbanded once again. 

Retired police officers like Don Sureth and Bruce Nelson spoke in support of GPD, but they were often interrupted by other residents with dissenting opinions. 

One voice of opposition was Chanae Jackson, a prominent activist within the Gainesville community. Before the public comment section was even open, she had already stood and expressed her frustrations, interrupting Yvette Carter, Gainesville’s director of government affairs and community relations, who was in charge of the event.

“It’s our meeting,” she said. “Our people are being brutalized by y'all, and y’all [are] protecting the system instead of actually protecting the people.”

Jackson would regularly speak up about the injustices and problems of the system, such as disparities in  dogs targeting and biting Black people more often. 

Her interruptions forced the meeting to conclude public comment before three residents were given the chance to speak.

“We don’t call for K-9's,” Jackson said. “We call for help.”

She was backed by Gainesville resident Andre Abrams, who responded with a series of “amens.” Abrams also held up homemade signs during the meeting with phrases such as “fire the chief” and “dirty cops” written on them.

“Politeness doesn't make social change,” he said.

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City Manager Cynthia Curry opened the meeting, expressing support for GPD and the K-9 unit specifically despite the controversy. Curry was the official who most recently pulled the plug on the unit, suspending it until community input can officially be heard.

“As I have served in this public service role, not only here in Gainesville, but in other areas around the state, I know how important it is for our police officers to have the necessary tools to support the work that they do,” Curry said. 

Following Curry’s opening remarks, Tony Jones, former police chief, spoke briefly about how the city and GPD are trying to do better by listening to residents and their concerns. 

“Some people want to go back to 1963 where we were in Birmingham,” Jones said. “But we have progressed beyond what happened in 1963 with Bull Connor and all those. We want to talk about 2023 and how we can make it better.”

Chief Lonnie Scott spoke after Jones, giving a brief description about the process of “deploying response to resistance.” K-9 units are one of the tactics applied when someone is resisting, and they are only used as a response, Scott said. 

GPD Capt. Anthony Ferrara later gave a presentation detailing the history of the K-9 unit at GPD, the current members of the unit, the training process for dogs and handlers, the different policies for specific circumstances and what must happen for a K-9 to be called upon for service. 

GPD changed some of its policies including stronger oversight and making it so officers can only use dogs in cases of forcible felonies and violent misdemeanors like domestic violence. 

The dogs are only used when someone has committed a crime, Ferrara said — a statement and procedure residents like Amy Schwarzer found unconstitutional.

“Multiple of the officers who spoke today called these people criminals,” Schwarzer said. “They are not criminals until convicted constitutionally.”

Ferrara completed his segment by saying that in 90% of arrests, the dog didn’t bite. 

After providing that statistic, Chief Inspector Jaime Kurnick took over the second half of the presentation that further detailed the statistics of response to resistance and the use of K-9 units. 

However, she began by showing a video of retired Sgt. Michael Pruitt giving a testimony about his dog Gero, who died on duty after being shot. 

This video was also a catalyst for controversy later on. 

UF Criminology student Nina Zaremba, 22, was one of the three residents who were not able to speak and said she felt the example was outdated. If a surgeon saved a life once every 30 years, they would not be an effective surgeon, she said. 

Zaremba also believes the use of K-9 units is unconstitutional, she said, and GPD needs to step up and start making changes. Though a majority of other police departments use and see a value in K-9 units, it doesn’t mean GPD has to follow suit, she said. 

“There's been so many laws that are incredibly unethical, immoral, inhumane, that have been legal,” Zaremba said. “Just because other places are doing it, it doesn't mean that we should.”

However, retired GPD officer Bruce Nelson said he believes K-9 units are still worth it. 

While in the process of arresting a rape and kidnapping suspect, Nelson said, the suspect pointed a shotgun at him. His dog attacked the suspect, stabbing him in the side and the eye, but the attack gave Nelson the ability to arrest the suspect. His dog saved his life on numerous occasions, but that is not their only job, he said.

“They're there to serve the people and protect the people that get hit hard the most by high crime, violence and gun attacks,” Nelson said.

Mayor Harvery Ward, who was present at the meeting, said it’s important to hear from the community members to influence future policy decisions about the K-9 unit.

“My hope for all these meetings is that lots of different voices get heard,” he said. “Sometimes that works, sometimes that doesn’t … But we do better as a community when we hear each other.”

Curry invited members of the community to attend another public safety committee meeting March 27 to follow up on three items: the disbanding or modification of the K-9 unit, organizational oversight and a cultural audit. 

It is unclear when a final decision on the unit’s reinstatement or permanent disbandment will be made.

Contact Aubrey at abocalan@alligator.org. Follow her on Twitter @aubreyyrosee.

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Aubrey Bocalan

Aubrey Bocalan is a third-year journalism major. She is also pursuing a double major in Art. When she isn't writing, she's probably watching TV with her dog, Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore Bocalan.


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