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Lake City Residents Looking for Police Oversight By a Civilian Complaint Review Board, Not an Advisory Council


Sylvester Warren at the microphone.

LAKE CITY, COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – The first two hours of Monday night’s Lake City, City Council meeting seemed at times like an event being held at the Roman Colosseum. Agitated by recent events, the community’s black residents showed up in force to take a stand for meaningful oversight of the Lake City Police Department.

Background

For generations, Lake City has been a place where nobody told white people what to do. Its schools were one of the last in Florida to be desegregated. The hiring of a black police chief ten years ago has not quelled accusations of unequal treatment and bias by the police against the black community.

Chewed to the bone
Chewed to the bone.

In October of this year, it was discovered that a black man had his leg chewed to the bone by a sheriff’s deputy’s K-9.

Two police officers of the Lake City Police Department have been accused of openly stating that they treat black residents differently than white residents.

Some Lake City residents feel that this investigation is dragging on.

With these and other incidents as a backdrop, many black community members showed up at Monday’s Lake City, City Council meeting. It didn’t take long to discover why they were there.

The City Council Meeting: uneventful for only a few minutes

Linard Johnson, former Columbia County School Board member
Linard Johnson, former School Board member, had something to say.

Monday’s meeting began like any other meeting of the City Council. There was a pledge to the flag and an invocation. Then, Mayor Witt opened the floor to public comments.

First to the microphone was former school board member Linard Johnson. He told the City Council: “We need a citizen’s review board for our law enforcement in this town… There has to be the sense that the departments, both sheriff and police departments, are concerned about their citizens and is committed to treating all people the same… We are taking steps back to a time where our country was extremely divided…”

Next up to the microphone was businessman and community activist Sylvester Warren.

He came to the microphone holding a sign that depicted a black man’s leg having been chewed to the bone by a sheriff’s deputy’s K-9.

Mr. Warren mentioned two LCPD police officers he claimed said they treat black folks different from white folks. He told the Council that he was president of an organization called the Justice and Equality Coalition.

He said, “The Chief refused to meet with us. Mr. Helfenberger refused to meet with us. We’ve been asking for a citizen review board for the simple reason that we did not want to get to this. This was swept under the rug by the sheriff. This happened back in October. Am I next for somethin’ like this or somethin’ worse?”

Mr. Warren continued: “There are too many black men that fear for their lives and have been murdered by cops, who almost every time are never convicted for that crime. In Lake City — Columbia County, we have a bad cop culture… We have a sergeant on record saying he treats the black community – applies the laws different in the black community… I am telling you there is a difference in this City — being black versus being white. We are one traffic stop away from being murdered. There is a double standard…  We can do something about this today.”

Lake City, City Councilman Eugene Jefferson
Councilman Eugene Jefferson, a 20 year veteran, listens to Sylvester Warren.

Mr. Warren then addressed his remarks to one of the two black city council members: “Mr. Jefferson, we’re asking you. You represent the biggest part of the black community… We’re asking you tonight that you make a motion right now to give us a citizen review board. You haven’t given us much in 20 years, but you can give us a citizen review board. You can make a motion right now to make a change. You can be the historical monument in this town…  Mr. Jefferson, are you willing to give us a citizen review board?”

Councilman Jefferson was caught unawares. He addressed Mayor Witt, “I want to pose a question to you Mayor, if I may. Will you explain to me the difference between a review board and an advisory board?”

Mr. Warren jumped in with an unsolicited answer, “Language – it’s interchangeable. It’s just the verbiage…”

People in the audience chimed in with their opinion, “It’s the same thing.”

Mayor Witt also caught unawares, said, “I think it depends on how it’s structured. I think there are a lot of variations.”

Mr. Warren said it’s about styles.

Then Mr. Warren broke all the procedural rules and directly addressed Councilman Jefferson, “Can I get a motion from you?”

Councilman Jefferson responded, “I can support an advisory board.”

Mr. Warren came back, “Can you make a motion for an advisory board for us tonight?”


Some of the crowd that turned out for the City Council meeting.

Councilman Jefferson said, “I can support an advisory board.”

Mr. Warren pushed again for Mr. Jefferson to make a motion.

Community activist Vanessa George (from the audience): “Then make the motion.”

Councilman Jefferson:  “I place that as a motion.”

The audience cheered and clapped.

Councilman Sampson seconded the motion. The Mayor didn’t hear him through the noise.

Mayor Witt said, “We have a motion, but it’s not a topic that’s on the agenda, but I’ll ask for a second for it.”

City Councilman Todd Sampson
Councilman Todd Sampson listens.

Councilman Sampson seconded the motion, eliciting more cheers from the audience.

Mayor Witt said, “We have a motion and a second – we have a discussion.”

Councilman Sampson weighed in: “… I think it is a good idea to implement a Citizen Police Advisory Committee. Now is the time.”

Mr. Sampson said, “People are afraid to bring problems to the police.”

Councilman Hill opined, “This is a way that shows transparency in our police department. I support it 100%.”

Councilman Greene told the Mayor he would like to hear from the Chief. He said, “She is a stakeholder.”

Police Chief Gilmore
She Said She Always Wanted an Advisory Board

Chief Gilmore came to the microphone and demonstrated that she didn’t know the Council rules regarding participation. The discussion begins after the motion is seconded, which puts it on the floor for debate.

Chief Gilmore said, “I was a little disappointed that a motion was made and second without giving me an opportunity to speak.”

Chief Gilmore spoke about a “ride-along” for the Council members and said that the Council had already agreed to afford her an opportunity to have a workshop to talk about “police operations, transparency, and accountability.”

Chief Gilmore then said, “I’ve had three community relations coordinator. When I gave them their duties and responsibility, bulleted in that is the coordination of a police advisory council.”

Lake City Police Chief Argatha Gilmore
Chief Gilmore makes a point. On the job for the past ten years, no one could remember her talking about any kind of police review board.

She said there is a difference between a citizens review board and a police advisory council.

Chief Gilmore said no one had asked for a definition and pressed for a workshop.

She said, “It sounds like you’re being pushed into a citizen review board when you have not had the question answered, ‘What are the expectations?’”

Chief Gilmore said that no one had asked her for an opinion regarding the review board, adding, “It’s always been my desire to have a police advisory council.”

No one remembers the Chief ever bringing up her desire to have a police advisory council. It is not in the City Council minutes.

The Chief said that every year the police department publishes an accountability report, which is distributed throughout the County. The 2020 report has not been produced. The City Clerk is searching for the 2019 accountability report.

“That’s accountability City Council,” she said, adding, “I will not have anyone on my staff who violates the law and violates policy, and not bring them to accountability.”

The Chief was heckled from the audience.

She repeated that a police advisory council has always been her priority.

Councilman Sampson said he wanted an advisory Council.

Chief Gilmore
Doubles Down on Her “Ever Since I’ve Been Here” Initiative Claim

Chief Gilmore said, “This was one of my initiatives, so I’m asking this Council to allow me to follow through with my initiative for a police advisory council: the initiative that I have and that I want to implement. Not that it is mandated by this Council. It is one of my initiatives that has been there, ever since I have been here.”

The Chief continued, “The question is that I am asking this Council, as I mentioned to you when I first got here… are you going to allow me to initiate that initiative that I had in place as a police advisory council. That’s what I’m asking.”

Councilman Greene weighed in. “It sounds to me like we want to improve relations between the police department and the community,” he said.

Councilman Greene wants the Chief to present her ideas at a workshop.

Mayor Witt said a workshop would be a good place to start.

Councilman Hill said that during a ride-along, the police would be on their best behavior.

Chief Gilmore responded that a ride-along would give the Council members a chance to learn what police officers do and how the department operates.

Councilman Hill said, “Speaking as a black man, it is different when Mr. Greene gets stopped and when I get stopped.”

Chief Gilmore said people could make complaints. The process is in place.

The Chief added, “There is always another side to an incident — allow the process to take place.”

Councilman Greene said nobody knows what they are approving.

Mr. Warren came back to the microphone, “Mr. Greene, with all due respect, you’re white, and you have white kids, so all this time playing around, you don’t have the same fears that we have. As you play around and try to get some strong language together for that… we need a citizen review board.”

Mr. Warren continued, “The Chief talks about her initiative. She’s been here a very long time. If she was serious about it, it should have been done… Anybody that has nothing to hide will welcome an extra level of transparency and accountability.”

Slave Catchers Used Dogs

Vanessa George with poster
Vanessa George had a lot to say in a few words.

Vanessa George came to the microphone: “This is nasty — disrespectful — slave catchers used dogs. This is why we want a citizens review… look at this. This could be any of you alls child. I’m sorry. It could be two of you… it sounds to me like you want a board that you can control.”

Epilogue

After almost two hours, Linard Johnson asked Mr. Jefferson to clarify his motion.

Mr. Jefferson said he wants a review board and a workshop.

Councilman Greene asked Mr. Jefferson to clarify his motion, asking, “The point of the workshop is to determine the roles and responsibilities and how a citizens review board or advisory board is going to address the concerns of the citizens that showed up tonight, as well as the Chief’s initiative?”

Councilman Jefferson said, “That’s the point of the workshop. That’s what I had in mind.”

Stay tuned.