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Leon County Sheriff's Race: Does Diversity Play Important Role In Local Law Enforcement?

MGN Online

Does racial diversity play an important role in law enforcement? Some local officials say it does. The two white and two black candidates in the Leon County Sheriff’s race have their own views about how law enforcement diversity is key to helping strengthen ties with the community.

During the 33rd annual National Night Out event, kids and adults enjoyed music, free food, and drinks, as they interacted with Tallahassee’s law enforcement, like Sergeant Anitra Highland.

“National Night Out is an opportunity for communities, neighborhoods to come together with law enforcement to show that we’re engaged together against crime,” said Highland.

That was back in August, around the time many people were talking about white police officers shooting black men. That includes the July shooting of Philando Castile, who was filmed on Facebook getting shot.

And, Highland says events like these are more essential now than ever.

“I think they have always been critical, of course now more than ever,” she added. “But, I mean we at the Tallahassee Police Department have always been engaged in the community, and myself being Supervisor of Community relations unit, we have definitely been engaged in the community doing all different types of outreach.”

In addition to events, like National Night Out, others say making sure the makeup of law enforcement is reflective of the community it serves. Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum says he believes Tallahassee Police Chief Mike Deleo is doing a good job at improving diversity.

“In fact, the chief has—in this past year and a half with our intention toward recruiting more officers—try to figure out what are the deficits that we’ve got to close in order to help frankly, minority, black and brown, law enforcement officers choose our organization,” said Gillum.

He says that includes looking at people with military backgrounds, instead of just those with college degrees. Gillum says providing police academy scholarships is a plus as well.

“And so, we’ve tried to incentivize on the early end of scholarshipping folks through the academy, with a guaranteed commitment to come back and work in our department,” he added.

Some Leon County Sheriff’s candidates have similar thoughts, like Walt McNeil. He’s the Democrat running for Leon County Sheriff’s office, who’s worn a lot of law enforcement hats, including TPD Chief.

He says one of his target goals—if he becomes sheriff—is to focus recruitment efforts on college campuses and having law enforcement training certifications take place at the university level.

“We have a great opportunity with FAMU, FSU, and TCC to bring in the best students that we could possibly have,” said McNeil. “So, when students come out of college, they’re already trained and ready to come into police agencies. That will help minority officers, coming in because you have to pay to go through the academy. That’s a cost that some of our kids don’t have. If that cost was covered, while they were in college, it would ensure more African Americans coming to law enforcement. So, that’s something I hope to work on.”

But, McNeil, says diversity should start with leadership.

“You have to make sure that the Command staff—that is the people who directly report to the Sheriff—are a diverse group of people, first and foremost, that make up the agency,” said McNeil.

“Out of the five, six, seven captains, there’s only one minority member there,” said Charlie Strickland. “There’s one female. There’s two female majors. We have an issue. We do not look like our community at the top.”

Strickland is the Republican candidate running for Leon County Sheriff.

“The problem is getting people who are qualified that have been groomed to go there, and quite frankly, we’ve done a terrible job at the Sheriff’s office,” he continued. “And, when I say we, I mean them because I’ve been middle management. You know, I’ve worked next to these people and I’ve seen people get passed over. So, what we’re going to have to do is start at the top and reach out and diversify our agency in bringing in some outside people who are imminently qualified to do the job, and then make sure our hiring procedures reflect that ultimate goal.”

Strickland says he believes officers on patrol are very diverse, but he says overall, it could take years to have a truly diverse force.

Meanwhile, current Leon County Sheriff Mike Wood—who’s running for re-election—feels he’s making diversity gains. He took over for his predecessor Larry Campbell, who passed away last year.

“Since I became Sheriff, one of the things we did was we created a recruiting team, that is very diverse, both in race and gender,” said Wood. “So, we go out and pursue applicants very aggressively, and we really try hard to pursue African American applicants because you know, that would be our shortcoming. And, so, in recent rounds of promotions, I’ve been very deliberate. I’ve promoted multiple African Americans and actually, a couple of ladies are African Americans within our organization, too. Also, our command staff now has the first woman in the history of the Leon County Sheriff’s office promoted to the rank of major, but not only that, I have two majors on my Command staff now that are females. So, I think I’m being very progressive.”

Tommy Mills—who like Wood is running as an Independent—says he feels the Sheriff’s office needs to hire people who are fair and impartial.

“But, that’s what they expect,” said Mills. “And, how do we better serve our community if our police department or our sheriff’s office doesn’t reflect our community? That’s where we’ve got to get back to. I’m a proponent of making sure that we do all that we can to give Leon County the best service possible and a part of that is that we have diversity in our community.”

According to the U.S. Census bureau, the diversity makeup of Leon County Sheriff’s office matches pretty closely with the community. Leon County is about 60 percent white, 30 percent black, and six percent Hispanic.

The Sheriff’s office is 65 percent white, 33 percent black, and 1 percent Hispanic. But, take out staffing positions and just look at sworn law enforcement, it’s a different story with more than 84 percent white.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.

Sascha Cordner has more than ten years of public radio experience. It includes working at NPR member station WUFT-FM in Gainesville for several years. She's worked in both radio and TV, serving in various capacities as a reporter, producer and anchor. She's also a graduate of the University of Florida with a bachelor's degree in telecommunications. She is the recipient of 15 awards from the Associated Press, Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and Edward R. Murrow. Her award-winning stories include her coverage on the infamous “Dozier School for Boys” and a feature titled "Male Breast Cancer: Lost in the Sea of Pink." Currently, Sascha serves as the host and producer of local and state news content for the afternoon news program "All Things Considered" at WFSU. Sascha primarily covers criminal justice and social services issues. When she's not reporting, Sascha likes catching up on her favorite TV shows, singing and reading. Follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter:@SaschaCordner.