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Hillsborough’s sheriff, chief prosecutor talk 'defund the police’ with activists

Sheriff Chad Chronister called it a “knee-jerk reaction." Activists say it’s not about erasing police. It’s about spending money on community needs.

As people started a second week of marching and speaking out against police brutality in Tampa Bay, Hillsborough County’s sheriff and chief prosecutor addressed issues at the heart of the protests in a Tuesday night Zoom panel with activists, pastors and defense attorneys.

First on the agenda: “Defund the police,” which has become a rallying cry for activists to speed reforming law enforcement agencies.

Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister is not a fan.

“It’s a knee-jerk reaction to think that you’re going to defund the police,” he said. “If you have to call for help, who are you going to call?" He pointed to mental health and education programs aimed at reducing recidivism the department runs.

But the actual concept is more nuanced than that. Civil rights activist LIFE Malcolm, who has long criticized the way the Tampa Police Department treats black residents, said the idea isn’t to erase law enforcement agencies — it’s to re-think their budgets.

"The sheriff makes it seem as if people are proposing the money just goes away ... people aren’t proposing that,” he said.

Instead, he said protesters believe governments should re-allocate some of those resources to address social ills and provide services that black communities need more than a heavy-handed police presence.

Related: Police paralyzed him. Gov. Ron DeSantis just approved his settlement

Commenters on Facebook chimed in as the discussion unfolded.

“More money for community projects I love that idea,” wrote a Facebook user named Eric Richard.

The sheriff and Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren took part in the wide-ranging Zoom discussion along with two state lawmakers, Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg and Rep. Dianne Hart, D-Tampa, which was broadcast on Florida You Judge’s Facebook page.

The panel talked about how to move forward in the wake of energized calls to re-think police policies and address entrenched racism in the criminal justice system in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. He was killed on May 25 after a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for more than eight minutes.

Posted by Florida You Judge on Tuesday, June 9, 2020

There was some tension as Chronister and Warren defended their records addressing those disparities. Activists pressured them to listen, to think bigger and to respond to pent-up traumas.

“I would hope that Sheriff Chronister might have a more open mind to consider suggesti[ons] instead of coming out completely reactive," Facebook commenter Nina Tatlock wrote of the sheriff’s reaction to defund the police.

Both Chronister and Warren expressed support for the protests and said they prioritized accountability in their agencies.

“There’s no immunity when it comes to those kind of things,” Chronister said of the Minneapolis police officer who faces a charge of second-degree murder in Floyd’s death. "I’m outraged, I’m repulsed by all of it.”

He said his agency already had implemented all the use-of-force principals promoted by the #8Can’tWait campaign and promised to continue listening to the community. "You have to be prepared to have the uncomfortable discussions,” he said.

Warren called for more crisis and de-escalation training for law enforcement officers. He also said the Florida Department of Law Enforcement should keep track of officers’ disciplinary records.

“We need to be able to translate the enthusiasm of the protests into concrete change," Warren said. “One of the ways we do that is to make sure we continue having these conversations, even after the protests stop."

There was a lot more work to be done on that count, defense attorneys said.

Bridgette Domingos, a Largo defense attorney, highlighted her 23-year-old daughter’s recent experience protesting for the first time. Tampa had implemented a 7:30 p.m. curfew.

But at 7:15 p.m., she said officers started shooting less-lethal rounds into the crowd.

“That’s not necessarily communicating with your community,” she said.

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Coverage of local and national protests from the Tampa Bay Times

HOW TO SUPPORT: Whether you’re protesting or staying inside, here are ways to educate yourself and support black-owned businesses.

WHAT PROTESTERS WANT: Protesters explain what changes would make them feel like the movement is successful.

WHAT ARE POLICE USING? A guide to non-lethal and less-lethal weapons used in local, national protests.

WHAT ARE ARRESTED PROTESTERS CHARGED WITH? About half the charges filed have included unlawful assembly.

WHY DO POLICE CLASH WITH PROTESTERS? We looked at law enforcement rules. They urge de-escalation but only to a point.

HEADING TO A PROTEST? How to protect eyes from teargas, pepper spray and rubber bullets.

SOME NEW, SOME LONGTIME FAVORITES: Here are 15 black-owned restaurants and food businesses in Tampa Bay