Sheriff, community start dialog to bridge racial differences

Residents tell complaints, offer solutions to working with law enforcement

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MIDDLEBURG – The United States is going through what may be its most significant political upheaval and struggle for civil rights since the 1960s. The lynchpin of the latest round of historical level change is the treatment of minorities, particularly African Americans, by law enforcement.

Clay County Sheriff Darryl Daniels understood this and worked to ensure that his department and the residents of Clay County are on the same page. That they know their law enforcement personnel will protect and serve, in closest adherence to the laws which dictate their mission and conduct.

With that thought in mind, Daniels, along with his Undersheriff Ray Walden, and Director of Operations David Barnes, held a meeting open to the Clay Community at CentrePointe Baptist Church in Middleburg.

In a time where modern technology is allowing ordinary citizens an unprecedented ability to document the actions of law enforcement and make it available for all to see, the divide between those sworn to protect and serve is growing wider and wider.

After opening remarks by Daniels, community members were invited to the podium where they shared their thoughts and grievances while also offering possible solutions.

The plan was to create an open dialogue for the first meeting while working to position future community engagements between the Sheriff’s Office and the people it polices.

Daniels, known to be a hard-liner with willful violators of the law, showed another side on this evening: empathy. As a Black sheriff, he is in a unique position to understand some of the difficulties faced by minorities in their interactions with law enforcement while also seeing things from the side of a sworn officer.

“I think it was a good first step, move in the right direction,” Daniels said. “As the night moved forward, we started getting into things more substantive, and a lot of the things that were discussed had to do with law enforcement’s shortcomings as a profession. People had some fantastic ideas on accountability.”

Many Clay residents spoke, voicing concerns on various issues pertaining to the current state of police conduct in this country.

One white woman recounted the story of her Black daughter, who came home in tears four years ago after being detained for over an hour, having her vehicle searched, and her belongings rummaged through without any explanation, other than being “suspicious.”

“Even today, four years later, at university, she is a nervous wreck, when a deputy pulls up behind her,” said the woman. “Because she thinks, oh my God. Here we go again.”

Not all speakers approached from the same angle. One man asked the panel what their thoughts were regarding protection of their property should looting become an issue in Clay County. While Daniels explained that he is a proponent of the second amendment (the constitutionally guaranteed right to bear arms), he also stated that there is a line when it comes to using firearms to protect one’s home and one’s person, versus safeguarding property.

In all, the meeting was an opportunity for people to be heard and bridge – or rebuild – the link between the community and the sheriff’s office.

“We heard some great ideas. But what’s next?” asked Daniels. “Some real, true, deep conversations. We gotta have a couple more meetings of people who want to come and be part of the solution.”

Daniels has ideas for other meetings in the future, on a smaller scale, involving residents, members of the clergy, and of course, law enforcement officers.

“I’ve been living in Clay County since 1992, and this is where I call home,” said Daniels. “I’m not from Clay County, but this is my home now. So, I’m going to do everything in my power to move us forward. Move not only Clay County as a community, but Clay County as a Sheriff’s office and how we interact with one another. You’re seeing a recalibration of societal norms. That’s what is happening. And we are going to have to make the leap or the adjustment as law enforcement to keep up with what society expects of us, and I want to share that with the rest of the country. I mean what I say; I want to fix some of these problems in law enforcement.”

Daniels fielded additional questions and spoke with residents following the conclusion of the meeting. He was intent on providing the maximum opportunity for those wanting to be heard to do so.

“This is business for me,” Daniels said. “The people have me in place to keep them safe, and if I see something going on in society that needs my attention, then I’m going to do something about it as a leader.”

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