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Pinellas sheriff, rival candidates discuss accountability in online forum

One candidate says he wants to start a Yelp-like website so people can rate deputies.

Incumbent Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and his two opponents took part in an online candidate forum Wednesday evening and discussed police accountability, the sheriff’s handling of arrested protesters and answered questions from the community.

The forum started with 30 seconds of silence in honor of black men and women who have died in violent encounters with police. That included George Floyd, who was killed by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25, setting off weeks of protests against police brutality and systemic racism. But no questions about Floyd were asked.

Gualtieri, a Republican, spoke alone for the first hour, responding to questions about his decision to hold protesters overnight without bail, how he says he built trust between police and communities of color and how he’s holding deputies accountable.

He didn’t face off against his two Democratic opponents, longtime critic James McLynas and retired sheriff’s employee Eliseo Santana. They spent the second hour criticizing what they described as Gualtieri’s lack of commitment to instituting reforms. They’ll face off in the Aug. 18 primary, and the winner will face the sheriff on Nov. 3.

One of the first questions was about the sheriff’s decision to hold arrested protesters overnight, without bail. Gualtieri had gotten permission from the Pinellas-Pasco chief judge to do so, and said that was for those who didn’t disperse when ordered during the St. Petersburg demonstrations, or acted violently.

“This has nothing to do with people who were protesting peacefully,” Gualtieri said. “These are people who were involved in the melee where we were getting pelted with rocks, bottles, bricks.”

Related: Pinellas protesters are being held overnight in jail without bail

McLynas, who ran unsuccessfully against Gualtieri in 2016, offered this idea:

“I’m starting a website where you can go on and actually rate the officers like a Yelp review,” he said. “So you’d be able to go out to my website … if you had a bad interaction with an officer you’re going to be able to report that and explain what happened to you.”

At least 5,500 people watched the forum, which was broadcast on Facebook Live and organized by activist groups like the Tampa Dream Defenders, Florida Immigrant Coalition and Organize Florida.

Gualtieri, 58, became sheriff in 2011 and has risen to become one of the nation’s most visible law enforcement leaders. On Tuesday, he attended President Donald Trump’s signing of an executive order encouraging police reform. The Sheriff’s Office wrote on its Facebook page that the order “acknowledges that misconduct can erode the trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve.”

The sheriff said he has built trust between his agency and communities of color by partnering with programs such as Men in the Making, a mentoring program for young men of color, and the Police Athletic League. He also cited the outreach efforts of Deputy William Lawson Jr.

Related: Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri is now the star cop in Florida politics. Who is he, and how did he get there?

To measure the success of those outreach efforts, Gualtieri said he looks to the strong relationships deputies have formed with people and organizations in communities of color. He said he also looks at citizen feedback, saying his agency only received one biased policing complaint in 2019.

McLynas, 61, who has a contentious history with the sheriff and has accused him of retaliation, criticized Gualtieri ‘s response.

He said having one community police officer isn’t good enough. He suggested there should be two deputies working in that sphere during the day and two at night. The community would know who those deputies are and have their cell numbers in case they have problems.

Santana, 62, a former school board and Clearwater city council candidate, agreed with McLynas on several points, such as the need to demilitarize the sheriff’s office.

He also talked about the fear he said he’s felt as a Latino when dealing with law enforcement shows that he understands the culture needs to change.

“You can change rules and regulations, procedures and implement programs,” Santana said. “Unless you have the person on the top truly grasp the need to change the culture, then we’re not going to have the systematic change we need.”

Related: Some of Tampa Bay’s largest law enforcement agencies adopt duty to intervene policies

Gualtieri has long opposed issuing body cameras to his deputies. He reiterated Wednesday night that he has no plans to implement them. He pointed to cost as one factor, citing the estimated $14 million it will cost the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office to equip its deputies.

Instead, the sheriff said, it’s more important to create a culture of accountability.

“We’re going to treat you right and fairly,” he said. “But we’re also going to treat the community right and fairly and if you mess up we’re going to hold you accountable.”

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