(whether you live in Pinellas County, Florida or not)
by Panagioti Tsolkas / Criminal Legal News
The head cop in Pinellas County, Florida was declared Sheriff of the Year at the National Sheriffs’ Association (NSA) conference last year in Kentucky. In November, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri is seeking re-election for the 3rd time. The difference this time around is that thousands who faced courts, jails and prisons under his law enforcement reign now have the right to weigh in on the election outcome as a result of a contentious state constitutional ballot item, Amendment 4 in 2018, which ended the voter disenfranchisement of most people who have completed their sentences for felony convictions in the state.
Some of these new voters may have very personal reasons to oust him. For starters, he used his position as head of the statewide Florida Sheriff’s Association to lead successful opposition to legislation this year that would have reduced prison time for drug offenders. In years past, he even voiced opposition to the successful effort to legalize medical marijuana in the state.
Crafting Blueprint for Cooperation with ICE
What the notorious Republican sheriff is best known for is being among the worst proponents nationally of local policy in support of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). He worked extensively with the federal agency to detain and deport immigrants, rather than keep them with their families. He has specifically developed a work-around, known as a Basic Ordering Agreement (BOA), to dodge the unconstitutional nature of the relationship between ICE and local law enforcement, which has faced scrutiny across the country for separating children from their parents.
As The Appeal reported, “Under the program, ICE pays Florida sheriffs $50 per day for each immigrant they hold. Rather than using an official contract, which has been questioned in court, the agreements resemble procurement orders, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.”
Gualtieri is credited with bringing national attention and support to this BOA model. Simultaneous to this effort, emails obtained by public records requests showed extensive contact and cooperation between the NSA, Gualtieri and the anti-immigrant organization FAIR, which has been classified as a hate group for espousing false and misleading rhetoric about immigration.
Alongside the creation of BOAs, he also supported controversial legislation that effectively outlawed sanctuary cities.
Allegations of Racist Policies and Practices
Gualtieri was again at the center of controversy around racist state policies in 2018 when an outcry surrounding the shooting death of 28-year-old Black man Markeis McGlockton in Clearwater was met with Sheriff Gualtieri announcing prior to any investigation that his agency would not charge Michael Drejka, a 47-year-old white man, for the shooting. He cited Florida’s Stand Your Ground legislation as the reason for his decision.
Gualtieri later made a public comment to civil rights leader Reverend Al Sharpton, who joined the community response to the case, to “go back to New York. Mind your own business.” Despite this grandstanding, essentially as an NRA mouthpiece (which he has done on several other occasions as well), Drejka was later convicted of manslaughter for killing McGlockton.
After the tragic mass shooting at Parkland High School, he drew criticism again calling teachers to bring guns into schools and pushing for measures likely to lead to further criminalization of youth rather than improvements to the educational environment, such as changes to youth diversion programs that looked more like policing than counseling. Gualtieri suggested publicly that students who commit more than one misdemeanor should be assessed for potential threats to the school community, fortifying the school-to-prison pipeline.
Chilling Free Speech
In June this year, Jacqueline Azis, ACLU of Florida’s Staff Attorney sent a letter to Gualtieri personally about his decision to refuse bail to people arrested at a protest against police violence. As Aziz pointed out, “This oppressive practice, seemingly by design, has a chilling effect on the exercise of free speech by those who want to express their disapproval of excessive use of force by law enforcement.”
He has also faced scrutiny over his support for widespread use of facial recognition technology, criticized as invading personal privacy, furthering the practice of racial bias in policing and promoting excessive state surveillance that civil liberties groups have said violate the intended protections of the Fourth Amendment.
Still Riding on a Gubernatorial Appointment?
Gualtieri wasn’t initially elected sheriff in Pinellas, he was appointed by Republican former-Governor Rick Scott in 2011, but he has retained the position for almost 10 years, using the political benefit of being an incumbent.
In a time when people have taken to the streets across the country to decry abuse by law enforcement agencies, Gualtieri stands out as an example of why #DefundThePolice has been trending on social media for months. On top of a pile of complaints for racial bias, criminalizing immigrants, drug war hysteria and school-to-prison pipeline policies, his office oversaw a massive $330 million dollar program of policing and prisons this year. (That’s a $7.5 million increase from the previous year.)
In a report by following last year’s national award to Gualtieri, the author noted that critics of the sheriff said “Gualtieri’s views are out of step with those of many Florida residents,” and by choosing Gualtieri for their award, they say, “the National Sheriffs’ Association has paved the way for other sheriffs who seek to transform policy, not just by selective enforcement, but by making the laws themselves.”
The margin for victory in Gualtieri’s seat is expected to be narrow, now that a serious Democrat contender, Eliseo Santana, has entered the race. Current voter registration demographics indicate less than a nine-thousand person difference between the parties, with Democrats at 249,622, Republicans 240,795, and no-party or small party affiliations weighing in at 198,598.
Gualtieri’s campaign for re-election is a reminder that local elections can have impacts far beyond local populations. Likewise, in the context of a movement to fundamentally rethink policing, taking down an elected officials such as him can send major ripples out across a country that is calling for an end to racist police abuse.
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Panagioti Tsolkas is a Greek-American author and community organizer from Clearwater, FL. He currently coordinates a statewide nonpartisan voter registration program with the Florida Immigrant Coalition, as well as volunteering with FLIC Votes. He has published extensively on mass incarceration, criminal justice and policing for websites and magazines including Criminal Legal News, Prison Legal News, Fight-Toxic-Prisons.org.