A national discussion on improving the relationship between communities and police was recognized locally on Monday with a religious service and an idea from the county’s top law enforcement officer on a way for residents to participate in the conversation.
The Nassau County Sheriff, Bill Leeper, suggested inviting a family of another race to your home for a meal, perhaps after church on Sunday.
“It’s hard to dislike someone you don’t really know if you break bread with them,” he said, believing the neighbors might come because, “not many people will pass up a free meal.”
The small crowd gathered at the historic Macedonia African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church on S. 9th St. in Fernandina Beach for the fourth annual ‘Bridging the Gap’ community event chuckled. With a show of hands, not many people said they had extended a such dinner invitation.
The sheriff said the idea for ‘Solution Sunday’ came from a local resident who heard about similar efforts in Oklahoma and South Carolina. He passed it along because, he thought, it was a good idea.
Sheriff Leeper, who has worked in law enforcement for 40 years, said it was “very important” for the department to communicate and engage with the community and that “citizens have a right to the highest levels of service and integrity.”
Many uniformed officers from the sheriff’s office and Fernandina Beach Police Department sat in red-cushioned pews or stood in the back of the room, taking in a five-point message from the sheriff to find joy in policing, work hard, look after their mind, body, and spirit, treat everyone with respect, and honor the department’s reputation.
“We will always do our very best in partnership with our community,” said Sheriff Leeper.
About 50 people attended the event and many of them were religious leaders or officers. The city’s Deputy Police Chief Mark Foxworth–who spoke in place of Chief James Hurley, who was attending an industry conference–said he was expecting to see more citizens in crowd.
He shared important numbers: law enforcement answered 22,000 calls around the county last year and in Fernandina Beach, where officers made 287 arrests, tasers were used 1.7 percent of the time, or in almost five cases.
The calls officers responded to largely involved loud music, thefts, batteries, and domestic violence, a problem the Deputy Chief described as “rampant.”
The Deputy Chief said the department takes the use of force seriously and reports go through four levels of review. He said the use of body cameras, which started within the last year, has allowed the department to review traffic stops, complaints, as well as the use of force. “What we found is that solidified officer actions,” he said. Still, officials, “tweaked some things.”
The Deputy Chief said the department continues to investigate a 2016 unsolved murder. Johnell Richo, a 67-year-old army veteran, was shot and killed outside his home at 12th and Gum streets. There’s a suspect, he said, but evidence is elusive. “We need to bring that person to justice,” he said.
He said officers are doing good work off the job too, serving as volunteers to coach athletic teams and raising money for the Special Olympic. He said officers clean-up and make repairs at Ft. Clinch and mentor local students. Last month, the department took 150 children holiday shopping with financial support from the community.
“We ended 2017, I think, okay,” he said. “We know we have to do better…and understand what the community wants from us…we’ll continue to review policies and take input.”
Reverend Anthony Daniel, pastor of the Historic Macedonia AME Church, said there are serious issues for ‘Bridging the Gap’ to address, such as mass killings, racial violence, hate speech, police brutality, and an unbalanced criminal justice system. He said young black people have to be told how to talk with police and that taking civics lessons out of schools, which taught about such interactions, was one of the “worst decisions.”
State corrections officer Johnetta Myers, who sang at the service, said she is looking for a reason not to go work and that will happen when there’s no one to lock up.
Fourth Circuit Judge Steven Fahlgren, who works at the courthouse in Yulee–and whose wife Kimberly Fahlgren is on the Nassau County School Board–was called to the podium and in impromtu remarks said, “We want people to be protected in a just and fair system.”