Jacksonville Votes for Its Sheriff: An Interview with Candidate Tony Cummings

Duval County’s Tony Cummings discusses his platform on police accountability, civilian review boards, immigration

Daniel Nichanian

Florida’s Duval County, whose government is consolidated with that of Jacksonville, votes for a sheriff on March 19. Last week, the Political Report talked to Maria Garcia, an organizer with the Jacksonville Community Action Committee, about policing practices in this city. This week, we interviewed one of the candidates: Tony Cummings, who is running as a Democrat against Mike Williams, the Republican incumbent.

Cummings, who has worked in the United States Army Military Police and in the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, was one of the many candidates to run for sheriff in 2015, when he lost in the first round. This year, Cummings is Williams’s only challenger. In a wide-ranging interview, he explains why he thinks sheriffs contribute to rising incarceration and racial disparities in the criminal justice system, and why police accountability is a pressing issue to confront. He makes the case for giving citizens “a seat at the table” through the creation of a public accountability office and civilian review boards. Cummings also says that he would maintain the sheriff’s office’s 287(g) contract with ICE and assist the agency in detaining undocumented immigrants, provided that it does not arrest individuals unlawfully. The interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

The exact authority of a sheriff’s office and the range of issues on which they have jurisdiction can be opaque: What interests you about the sheriff’s office, and are there areas on which you are looking to significantly change the policies of the current administration?

My plan is to reduce violent crime on day one. As you know, we lead the state of Florida in violent crime, and that is a quality of life issue that has to be dealt with and confronted in order for Jacksonville to really be the place that everyone seeks to live in and enjoy their life and raise their children. Secondly, I want to double down on the trust issue between the Jacksonville sheriff’s office and many of the citizens who live in high crime areas of Jacksonville. What’s important about that is that the reason why criminals find Jacksonville to be a hospitable place is because the citizens are afraid under the current conditions to report crimes to the police. 70% of the murders go unsolved under the current sheriff, and that is just totally unacceptable. I also want to make sure that I demonstrate proper stewardship of the over 430 million dollars, 36 percent of the city’s budget, that goes towards police protection by actually taking those officers and giving them a new mission in high crime areas to reach out to the citizens with a sustainable platform, not just to enforce the law, but to actually show the citizens that we are in a partnership that is unbreakable. They’re going to feel safer and they’re going to know that we’re were going to be by their side every step of the way. I know that we can turn this violent crime problem around if we get that part correct.

As far of the Jacksonville sheriff’s office internal politics, we haven’t been as transparent as an agency over the years, and I want to change that. First things first, we want to make sure the citizens have a seat at the table with a public accountability office inside the sheriff’s office. The framework that I’m looking to actually use as we build that public accountability office is the Seattle, Washington model. Also civilian review boards are key. I know that civilian review boards are a very sticky issue when it comes to Florida politics and the Florida officers’ Bill of Rights: Generally it’s going to take some sort of change in the city’s charter, which is probably not likely to happen, or the door has to be introduced or opened by the sheriff, [and] I am totally for citizen review boards. We are in an era where transparency has to be the cornerstone of our police work along with integrity. If we can provide the citizens that seat at the table and they can see how we operate, trust that we’re doing right by their tax dollars and by the trust that they have bestowed on our offices, I think that we can drive down violent crime in Jacksonville and make Jacksonville a beacon for the nation in criminal justice reform.

Conversations about mass incarceration and about the high rate of incarceration among African Americans often pinpoint the role of state laws and prosecutors. Do you think that sheriffs and police departments have also played a role in the growth of incarceration and its inequalities? How does that shape how you would run the sheriff’s department if elected?

I do think that the sheriffs play a major role in mass incarceration across the country. As you know, there’s a disproportionate number of arrests of African American citizens. I think that many of those arrests are for low-level offences that officers in many instances would otherwise use discretion, or maybe even a civil citation, to deal with in other places. But they’ve been quite heavy-handed here in Duval County, with the incarceration. I’d like to retrain my officers in the understanding of implicit biases, and how that plays a role in your ability to enforce the law equitably across the board. Bias-based training is exceedingly important if a sheriff wants to reduce mass incarceration. The deputies have to understand that they work for the taxpayers, and in working for the taxpayers you can keep the taxpayers safe without having a heavy-handed enforcement that does nothing at this point but widen the gap of trust between the police and the citizens that they’re trying to actually protect and serve.

As sheriff of Duval County, from day one, I want to make sure that our officers are trained in this area and understand that with the exception of aggravated felonies, they should take the time to consider other options of diversionary action that they can take. A lot of times the officers don’t understand. Going into these situations they think “I have to arrest someone, I have to arrest someone,” when they really don’t have to arrest in many of the cases. They can defer their actions to other entities. I think that the civil citation process, giving out citations, will go a long way in driving down that mass incarceration rate. At least put the civil citation rate at 80 percent and keep it consistent to allow faith-based community groups, community activists, and nonprofits to get involved because we can’t enforce our way out of this problem, out of mass incarceration. We have to make sure that the prevention and intervention side helps us along the way, and they’ll feel comfortable doing that if they know that our officers are trained to recognize that they don’t have to arrest on every offence.

My next question follows up on that. An investigation published by ProPublica and the Florida Times-Union revealed that a disproportionate share of people arrested for jaywalking and other pedestrian citations were African American. The article was titled: “Walking While Black: Jacksonville’s enforcement of pedestrian violations raises concerns that it’s another example of racial profiling.” What measures would you implement to confront the disparities documented in this investigation, and what other racial disparities in law enforcement do you wish to confront as sheriff?

Any time you have a group of citizens in your jurisdiction who feel as if they are being targeted by law enforcement, you have to hit the pause button and take a very close look at what you’re doing as an agency. If that situation were to arise under my watch, the first thing we’re going to do is we’re going to hit the pause button to make sure that the claim is legitimate and [if] we see that obviously there’s a problem with the enforcement side, we’re going to take corrective action immediately. We have similar complaints with traffic stops, you have similar complaints with domestic cases where citizens of one race may be dealt with punitively while citizens of another race may be given a pass on the issue. I don’t want my deputies doing that kind of stuff.

The only way you’re going to make sure that’s not happening is proper management and leadership of your officers. If the managers are not properly managing their people, they’re not there, they don’t know what their officers are doing, then of course they can’t pick-up the pattern of bad behavior until it’s too late, many times until it’s too late. We’re going to double down on our management and make sure that they highlight these issues with their officers well before it becomes a problem. Rest assured, on day 1, we will make sure that our officers understand that the culture and behavior and the paths that allowed these things to happen no longer exists.

You’ve called for the creation of a public accountability office within the sheriff’s office, and for the creation of civilian review boards. What do you think the role of these entities ought to be, and how would you ensure that they are independent and enjoy actual influence on the policies of the office?

Civilian review boards are the brainchild of our criminal justice system’s lack, or inability to police itself. The sheriff’s office, many times, render a conclusion that an officer will be exonerated in the shooting, and the public is left in the dark because they have many many questions that go unanswered. The state attorney’s review, in many cases, does the same, and the use of force panel does the same. So now we find ourselves with a public that is angry. They’re asking for more transparency and the only way you are going to give it to them is to have a civilian review board. Civilian review board is a very sticky issue, I get it. The police unions don’t support it. Civilians—they want it but they want it with subpoena power. That’s where the fight will begin. If we put a civilian review board in place, I don’t want one that is a rubber stamp. They have to have real power to keep, not only my deputies but myself and my administration in check.

All these things didn’t just pop up overnight. All these things have plagued our criminal justice system for decades. Now the citizens are finally speaking about and they’re saying, “Hey, we don’t want words anymore, we want actions, we want to participate,” and I intend to give them a voice with the civilian review boards.

What about the public accountability office?

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The accountability office, I want to make sure that we are adhering to our policies. With no civilian oversight, sometimes—and this is not just in a sheriff’s office organization, this is any organization—you start to make friends, or fellow peers, and peers don’t always do the right thing. They look the other way when things are not being done properly. We don’t want that in law enforcement. We want to weed that behavior out as much as we can. And the only way you’re going to be able to do that is to put [in place] a public accountability office that says, “OK, this is what your policy says, this is what you’ve actually done as sheriff, and you’re outside of your policy, so what are you going to do to correct that?” They’re holding me accountable, they’re holding my directors accountable, they’re holding my chiefs accountable. That’s how you run a transparent police department in the 21st century and anything else is just a shell game.

Regarding cases of individuals who are shot and killed by Jacksonville police officers, as I understand it you were just explaining that such cases could be handled with more transparency and that civilian review boards are one mechanism to do that. Are there other specific steps that you would take as sheriff with regards to cases of shootings by a police officers, with regards to how they are investigated and the transparency of the office around that?

When it comes to any use of force that results in death, those investigations should be immediately passed on to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and should be taken out of the hands of the Jacksonville sheriff’s office. The outcome has to be presented with the utmost integrity. We know that we have to have strong oversight in that regard, so I plan to make sure any use of force resulting in death is passed on to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to be investigated from the beginning.

I’d like to ask you about immigration and the role you think there is for ICE in the county: ICE relies in part on the cooperation of local authorities to enforce immigration laws. What do you think the attitude of the sheriff’s office ought to be toward undocumented immigrants living in the county, and toward ICE activities within the counties? Do you intend to change something about the way in which undocumented immigrants are treated in Jacksonville?

I know that there is a mutual aid agreement that we’ve agreed with. Here’s my position: my deputies will only detain based on lawful action taken by ICE – detention only. We are not going to participate in any enforcement exercise or anything like that unless it involves identifiable criminal activity. I’m not one of those sheriffs that will allow any agency to come into our jurisdiction and profile any of our citizens. That’s not what our Constitution stands for. So if ICE is operating in this jurisdiction they damn well be operating well within the confines of the law. Our only participation in ICE will be to help them detain or assist them in detention. I’m not a big fan of some of their practices.

Specifically, the main agreement that the Jacksonville sheriff’s office has with ICE: the 287(g) contract, which authorizes local law enforcement to research the immigration status of people who are processed in jail. In late 2018, a few sheriffs in North Carolina who were recently elected chose to withdraw their counties from this program. What is your view of the 287(g) program, and whether you maintain or end it if you were elected sheriff?

I’m not a big fan of it to begin with. But let’s be clear on it. We will monitor it for abuses, and any abuses that come up my watch, we will come out of the agreement, period. That’s clear. I don’t want to say that we are not going to assist ICE in their efforts to detain and identify illegal immigrants. We’re going to detain any lawful arrests made by ICE, and any assistance that they ask us for under a lawful arrest that has nothing to with profiling groups of people to make one arrest. We will give them the assistance that they need. However, if there is a pattern of behavior that clearly illustrates that ICE is abusing the citizens or profiling the citizens, or we have complaints come in that they are profiling, we will come out of the agreement immediately. I will let them know that on day one.

When you say we will assist ICE in a lawful way, or detain lawful arrests done by ICE, what is your understanding of what is a lawful arrest? One issue relating to cooperating with ICE is whether a sheriff’s office will abide by a request by ICE to detain individuals beyond their scheduled release time—a detainer request. Do you intend to agree to such requests, or what are the conditions under which you would agree?

We’re not going to hold anyone beyond the required release time, that’s not going to happen. If ICE wants our cooperation, we will detain, we will identify on all lawful arrests made that have nothing to do with profiling groups of citizens. That’s the aid that they will receive from our agency. But if at any point we receive complaints that ICE is rounding up people who happen to be US citizens to detain one individual who happens to be an illegal in the country, we will come out of that agreement. I don’t support that type of activity, it is discriminatory from all angles and we won’t be a part of that.

To clarify, as long as your understanding is that an arrest has been done lawfully and without profiling, you will abide by the 287(g) idea of having people under your authority search for the status of the people who you’re processing in the jail?

On the detention side, right, only the detention side.

What has been your experience on the campaign trail regarding the degree of visibility and interest that an election for sheriff sparks?

Considering that crime is the number one issue on people’s minds in Jacksonville, and us leading the state in violent crime categories and unsolved cases, and the amount of money spent on police protection in this city, you would think that the sheriff’s race would be profiled by the media as the number one issue. To date, you are the second journalist that’s contacted me since the qualification period closed on Jan. 11. We’re doing what we can on the grassroots to get the word out, people are very receptive.