‘We Are Paramilitary’: Alachua County Sheriff Defends Police in Virtual Town Hall

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“I know it doesn’t look great, and I know a lot of people think that law enforcement looking like the military is a horrible thing, but the truth is we are paramilitary. We are paramilitary because we have to, at times, use deadly force,” said Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell.

This message caused numerous other callers to voice their opinions in an online police reform meeting on Friday. Joining Darnell in the meeting was the Alachua County Commission Chair Robert Hutchinson, Vice Chair Mike Byerly, and commission members Charles Chestnut, Ken Cornell, and Marihelen Wheeler.

Darnell began the meeting with a presentation on numerous topics, including the #8CantWait initiative, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020, the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office standing regarding the recommended reforms, and a summary of the strengths of the ACSO.

#8CantWait is a campaign to bring immediate change to police departments. The initiative operates by urging police departments to adopt eight new policies. Some of these policies include banning chokeholds and strangleholds, requiring de-escalation techniques where possible, requiring exhaustion of all alternatives before shooting, and requiring officers to intervene and stop excessive force.

Darnell rebutted that all eight of the recommendations have already been implemented under the ACSO policy during her tenure. Darnell has been the Sheriff at ACSO since 2006, according to the Florida Sheriff’s Association.

The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020 would ban chokeholds and “no knock warrants,” end qualified immunity for police officers, require body cameras for police officers, and classify lynching as a hate crime, among other things, according to NAACP. The bill passed the House on June 25 and has been sent to the Senate for consideration. Although it is uncertain whether the bill will become law, Darnell says the ACSO follows most of them.

“I was fortunate by doing this project to learn a great deal, and we are in compliance with the majority of them also,” said Darnell.

Darnell then touched on the accreditation level of the ACSO, stating that both the Alachua County jail and ACSO are in “premier standing.” She also focused on the racial and ethnic disparities initiative that ACSO has started as well as an intimate partner violence initiative that the ACSO is a part of. The ACSO was also first in the nation to be certified to better respond to individuals in a mental health crisis, according to Darnell.

The meeting then opened the virtual meeting to calls by citizens. Topics included a COVID-19 outbreak at the Alachua County Jail, defunding the ACSO, the CARES Act and the role of police in dealing with mental crises.

“I don’t think it’s an either-or situation,” Darnell said when asked about her opinion on shifting funding from public safety to mental health counselors and social workers. “I believe that what we do in law enforcement has evolved into becoming more social worker like, more mental health therapist like, more child protection services like, and less law enforcement and that we are a blend. We have become this by default, because of lack of funding for mental health. In the state of Florida we vary between 48 and 51 as a state funding for mental health. I don’t think there is an argument that can be made to defund law enforcement in a particular category because there always is going to be this need for a blend.”

Apart from focusing on the responsibilities that officers might have that stray from law enforcement, numerous callers wanted to address the comments Darnell made about the ACSO being a “paramilitary force.”

One caller said, “I am really terrified that we are having conversations about paramilitary forces and how we need armored vehicles to keep our community safe. The fact that we have to have conversations about lethal force means to me that we have a shift from the way that we were doing things. We absolutely need to defund the police and put the money back into our community.”

Another caller, Tim, explained that he was an Iraq and Afghanistan combat veteran as well as an Alachua County resident. He said that the use of “paramilitary” to describe the ACSO was “horrifying,” and compared solving communities problems through policing to the quote by Abraham Maslow — “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

At the end of the meeting, Darnell addressed her usage of paramilitary when describing the ACSO.

“I think there is definitely a misunderstanding (when) I referenced the use of paramilitary. Paramilitary is not a pejorative term from the standpoint of referring to equipment and tanks and guns. What it refers to more correctly is the organizational structure of a law enforcement organization. We have a rank structure, a chain of command, that type of internal structure and discipline and oversight that happens in a military profession, generally,” said Darnell.

Both Darnell and the members of the Alachua County Commission ended the meeting by thanking the citizens for striving to make this meeting happen and that their focus on these issues will not end because the meeting has ended, but that they will continue to work with the community to strive for a better relationship between law enforcers and the community it protects.

About Kevin Maher

Kevin is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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