Nearly two weeks after former Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty on all counts for the murder of George Floyd, Investigative Reporter Katie LaGrone asked four of Florida’s top Black officers how police can regain the public’s trust.
They are four of Florida’s top cops, two city police chiefs and two county sheriffs. They have all risen to the top of the ranks in a profession that has, historically, not welcomed them.
“Are you black enough or are you blue enough?' That’s something administrators like myself have had to manage while our counterparts, white men, don’t worry about those types of considerations,” said Broward County Sheriff Gregory Tony, who was appointed by the Governor to the county’s top law enforcement spot in 2019 and re-elected by the people last year.
In a county plagued with a long history of racially charged police misconduct, Tony is its first African-American sheriff and is one of just four black sheriffs in Florida.
It’s been nearly two weeks since the murder conviction of former Minnesota Police Officer Derek Chauvin for the death of George Floyd. The conviction of a white police officer for killing a black man who was handcuffed has been widely described as a historic moment and reckoning on police violence and systematic racism within the ranks of law enforcement.
We invited Sheriff Tony and three other leading black officers in Florida to share with us their thoughts on how law enforcement regains the public trust.
“You don’t tackle this problem and look at it as just a problem for black people,” Sheriff Tony said.
“We've got to make sure that we are actually hiring the very best police officers we can,” said Sheriff Walter McNeil.
He leads Leon County, home to the State Capitol, where this session lawmakers passed new police reforms aimed at increasing officer training and independent oversight while limiting chokeholds and the ability of problem cops to wander from agency to agency.
Last year, a Yale study found more than 1,000 fired Florida cops eventually landed back on the streets with other departments. Eight hundred of them were fired for issues related to misconduct.
McNeil believes it’s time police agencies publish a routine scorecard on internal incidents involving their officers, including terminations and discipline.
“'How many police officers did you fire this year?' Nobody has ever asked me that. 'How many did you discipline this year?' Nobody's ever asked me that or 'what do you discipline them for?' We have to be forward-thinking and get that information out to the community ourselves,” McNeil said.
Police Chief Javaro Sims of Delray Beach believes accountability is key to restoring the public’s trust.
“We have to ensure that we are being held accountable and abiding by those policies that we created. I think we’ve failed to do that in a large respect,” Sims said.
Sims is among five black police chiefs in Palm Beach County, notable since out of 280 police chiefs in Florida just about 30 of them are black.
In Riviera Beach, also in Palm Beach County, Chief Nathan Osgood leads one of the state’s predominately black cities and one of the few police departments in Florida where the majority of its sworn officers are also black.
“Our police officers are from this community, relate to the community or went to high school in this community. I’m talking about whites and blacks and they understand the make-up of the community and know how to deal with people,” Osgood said.
Chief Osgood believes recent killings of black men at the hands of white cops underscores the need for police, in general, to step back.
“We don’t need to chase you from here to kingdom come every single time. We don’t need to get into a physical fight with you every single time. We can find and get you another day. Sometimes you have to back up,” said Osgood.
The police chiefs and county sheriffs we spoke with support more national tracking of police who use excessive force. Many police departments around the country, including Florida, have already implemented implicit bias and other racial justice training, citizen review boards, random body camera checks and early warning systems to weed out problem cops.
Despite navigating their own difficult paths between professional duty and personal identity, each of the law enforcement leaders we spoke with recognizes the moment and their professional and personal responsibility to ensure its captured.
“If we don’t capitalize on this movement now then we’re going to regress,” said Sheriff Tony.
“We have to find a way the public trusts law enforcement again. If we have to get out there in the community every day and say hello and shake hands and kiss babies, we got to do this. We just have to do it," Chief Osgood added.