Lake City Residents Looking for Police Oversight By a Civilian Complaint Review Board, Not an Advisory Council
Posted February 4, 2021 01:59 pm
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.
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.
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
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.”
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?”
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.”
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