For Andrew Gillum, violent crime called for ‘state of emergency.’ Others didn’t agree.

Last year, when Tallahassee saw its county’s already record-setting crime rate rise amid a string of murders, Gillum sought to declare a state of emergency.
Tallahassee Mayor and Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum. (AP Photo/Brendan Farrington)
Tallahassee Mayor and Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum. (AP Photo/Brendan Farrington)
Published Aug. 17, 2018

When Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum called to end the "Stand Your Ground" law after the shooting of Markeis McGlockton last month, he asked Gov. Rick Scott to declare a state of emergency to suspend the law.

It didn't happen. It was a politically impossible request, though several other African-American leaders emphasized Gillum's call on the Republican governor to do so.

But it put a Gillum signature on the issue in more ways than one. It's not the first time the brash young mayor, who is running for the Democratic nomination for governor, has sought to tap into the dramatic power of declaring an emergency to underscore a message he wanted the public to see.

Last year, when Tallahassee saw a record number of homicides in its county, Gillum made a similar call: Activate the county emergency operations center indefinitely to tackle violent crime.

It was the third year in a row that state data indicated Leon County had the highest crime rate in the state, though the FBI, which compiles the data, cautions varying conditions make it difficult to compare numbers among cities and counties. Law enforcement had already started pushing community policing policies and collaborating more between the county and Tallahassee, its only city, when a string of murders that fall nudged the murder toll to an all-time high.

But Gillum's proposal was highly unusual for the local level. He called for shifting power in the county sheriff rather than the city's police chief — even though the sheriff said he thought activating the emergency operations center was unnecessary — and to centralize communications in the emergency center, which has usually only been activated for natural disasters.

The push failed. The county commission chair rejected the motion, and other city commissioners raised concerns about the broad implications of the plan for city and county governance. Some city leaders also groused that Gillum sought to keep the proposal afloat to bolster a campaign for governor that fellow city commissioners have suggested distracted him from the daily workings of the city.

But it illustrated how the first-term mayor has pushed bold if improbable measures as a political tactic, even when they are unlikely to succeed or might alienate people he works with.

"I did it because I thought a north star was necessary," said Gillum recently, acknowledging the chances of the proposal succeeding were difficult.

In his view, the proposal made space for other actions the committee took, like increasing crime-fighting reports and forming a "public safety collective" including police and fire officials, the state attorney, U.S. attorney's office and Big Bend Crime Stoppers. "I think it's important in politics when you are trying to activate people to change, and bring people to action, sometimes you have to lay an outlier of where you have to go."

Gillum first raised the idea of calling for an emergency operations center response in June, though city commissioners were not eager to pick up what he later deemed the "hot potato" issue. But after a string of homicides lifted the murder rate in Tallahassee past previous years' records, Gillum revived the proposal.

In a letter to County Commission Chair John Dailey Oct. 18, Gillum sketched out a plan to tap the Emergency Operations Center, which usually deals with the threat of a natural disaster, to address violent crime as well.

He suggested using the city's traffic cameras for real-time law enforcement and putting the city's police officers under the purview of the county sheriff. He also cited no end date, which was unusual for activating an emergency resource, county officials said.

"Now is the time to seriously enhance our strategies to address violent crime in our community," Gillum wrote at the time. "I implore you to consider supporting this action."

But there was little support from other officials. Sheriff Walt McNeil, who would have run the operation, told the Tallahassee Democrat at the time he supported more coordination between the county and the city but thought opening the EOC was unnecessary.

County Commissioner Bill Proctor did urge Scott to declare a state of emergency over the crime rate, but also called on Gillum to suspend his gubernatorial campaign temporarily to focus on the city. Neither did so.
Dailey eventually declined to take up Gillum's proposal, not least because he said the statute didn't hold up.

"We didn't think this qualified under the definition of a disaster or an emergency," said county attorney Herb Thiele, who examined the legal backing for the proposal. The statute is essentially based on finite declarations, he added. The crime issue "may be an emergency, but that's a political emergency."

Gillum's lone-wolf stance also deterred the county chair. "There is no recommendation from the sheriff, director of the EOC or county administrator," Dailey bluntly told the Democrat at the time. "There is no one advocating to activate the EOC but the mayor."

City commissioners, in a meeting a few days later, rejected Gillum's plan again, citing concerns about consolidation with the county. "It was ridiculous," said commissioner Gil Ziffer, who has sparred often with the mayor and briefly entertained a run to succeed him. "We were not going to basically hand over our police department to the sheriff without further discussion."

To critics, the episode — Gillum's public letter to the county chair, the unlikely nature of the plan — echoed a critique of the mayor that he was grandstanding for political gain.

But Gillum didn't — and doesn't — see it that way. His approach, he said, has been to err on the side of more action rather than less.

"In some cases, it may have been sharper than how my colleagues [on the commission] would have appreciated," he said. "Certainly in a position where a mayor sits on the commission and has one vote like everyone else, they weren't used to a mayor coming out with as bold a set of plans as I have."

Leon County's overall crime rate last year declined 15 percent, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's annual data — though it remains the state's highest and the eventual number of murders that year soared to 22.

McNeil, the sheriff, told the Democrat in May that he credited the improvement in part to the public safety collective created last year, along with community policing policies and other initiatives. But "it's not a time to celebrate," he told the paper. "I'm happy crime is down, but we've got a lot of work to do."

Gillum, closing in on the last two weeks before the Democratic primary election, takes credit in part for that progress. But the downside of leadership, he said, means observers often give only some of the credit for improvements and all of the blame for failure.

"If something's going wrong, people say it's your government. If people say it's going right, it's everyone's government," he said. "It's very singular when it's negative. From that standpoint it can be a lonely place."