Sheriff’s candidates say George Floyd’s death, national response will be an issue in their race

PHOTO BY NICK SAMUEL

All five candidates for sheriff say the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last month and subsequent nationwide protests will be an issue in the race here, and they expect to be asked about it as they campaign.

Two of them – Fellsmere Police Chief Keith Touchberry and retired Sheriff’s Capt. Chuck Kirby – have addressed the incident extensively on their campaign Facebook pages, where they also discussed the strategies they would employ to prevent and respond to any such incidents involving their deputies.

They also expressed a need to improve the relationship between the county’s largest law enforcement agency and the local black community.

Touchberry condemned both the actions of the Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who knelt on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, and the three officers who “did nothing to prevent this tragedy.”

He wrote in his May 30 Facebook post that leaders in the law enforcement profession need to better prepare officers for the “ethical challenges” they will face during their careers.

“We must do better to teach our officers to have the moral courage to do the right thing, regardless of how they think their peers may treat them,” Touchberry wrote. “Having the moral courage to do the right thing is what’s necessary to manage police conduct before it becomes criminal.”

Kirby, the only candidate for sheriff to participate in a protest against police brutality on May 31, cited in a Facebook post the “unnecessary deaths of Byruss Green and Alteria Woods” in shootings involving the Sheriff’s Office in Gifford as a reason for increased mistrust between the agency and local black community. Green was killed Nov. 16, 2007, and Woods was killed March 19, 2017.

According to incident reports: Green was shot in the upper torso after he brandished a knife and “moved aggressively” toward deputies; and Woods was shot 10 times during a SWAT team drug raid targeting her boyfriend, Andrew Coffey IV, who allegedly fired the first shot.

“While municipal police agencies in Indian River County enjoy relative widespread support,” Kirby wrote in a Facebook post last week, “the unnecessary deaths of Byruss Green and Alteria Woods during encounters with the Indian River County Sheriff’s Office have fueled community concerns ranging from unconscious bias up to institutionalized racism.”

He added: “What’s broken is not simply transparency or accountability, it’s trust!”

Both candidates wrote that, if elected, they would equip deputies with body cameras and work to develop and nurture a culture of cooperation and trust between the agency and community.

While Kirby favors the creation of a civilian board to review complaints made against deputies and the agency, Touchberry – emphasizing that he’s not opposed to the concept – said he’d prefer the community first give him a chance to prove he’s serious about fixing flaws.

“See what changes we can bring about first,” Touchberry said. “If, after a year, you don’t like what we’re doing, we can address your concerns and try something different.”

Touchberry, though, said he’s aware that a significant segment of the local black population believes members of their community are being targeted, merely because of their race, and that excessive force is too often used.

“When I did my town hall meetings, that’s what people were saying – and not just in the black community,” Touchberry said, adding, “So with everything that’s going on after Minneapolis and an election coming up, we’re going to be asked about it.”

Sheriff’s Maj. Eric Flowers, who has received a full-throated endorsement from outgoing Sheriff Deryl Loar, said the agency echoes the sentiments expressed by the Florida Sheriff’s Association, which strongly criticized the police conduct in Minneapolis.

“The Minneapolis police officer used deadly force in a situation where there was no justification,” FSA President Bob Gualtieri said in a prepared statement. “The other officers present should have intervened to stop the officer who had his knee on George Floyd’s neck.

“These officers’ actions are not representative of sheriff’s deputies in Florida or the law enforcement profession.”

Flowers called the Floyd killing a “terrible tragedy,” and he believes the “national unrest” and “call for change” it has inspired will be a topic of discussion during the remainder of the campaign.

“We, as an agency, condemned the actions in that video,” Flowers said. “That’s not how we function. We don’t teach choke holds.”
Still, Flowers expects his political rivals to use the Floyd killing to connect him and his campaign to the fatal shootings of Green and Woods.

“At the same time, there are a lot of people in the community who want to support the police,” Flowers said. “We have to continue to partner with everyone in the community.”

Indian River Shores Public Safety Director Rich Rosell criticized Chauvin’s tactics, understands the response to Floyd’s death and said he will address the issue when he presents his platform this week.

“What happened in Minneapolis is going to come up, because the entire incident was caught on video and people are looking for action, not equivocation,” Rosell said. “How much of an issue it will be in our race, it’s hard to tell.”

Deborah Cooney, who is running as an independent, closed Aug. 18’s four-man Republican primary to Democrats and voters with no part affiliation when she qualified as a candidate last week.

She said the Floyd killing should be an issue in the race, and she supports Black Lives Matter’s call to defund the police.

“The sheriff has been decimating our African-American community here in Indian River County,” Cooney wrote in an email. “Take a drive through Gifford and you will see the effects.”

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