Story by STACY MARTIN
On Wednesday, July 8, the Cultural Arts Alliance partnered with the Committee for Justice, Equality, and Fairness of Walton County to hold it’s first in a series of community-wide conversations surrounding social justice in Walton County. This first session held virtually through the Zoom video conferencing platform focused on policing and race relations in DeFuniak Springs, with DeFuniak Springs City Marshal James Hurley.
The conversation was facilitated by Mike Bowden, chair of the Committee for Justice, Equality and Fairness, and community leaders Lewis Jennings and Sabu Williams.
Bowden began the session with questions stating that “The countywide stats for Walton County show the number of traffic stops and citations for African Americans and Whites in Walton County is roughly proportionate to their percentage of the population, however, the rate of arrests of African American adults and juveniles are two to three times higher than the proportion of Whites. And the number of jail inmates in the county is roughly five times more (than) that of whites. Although we don’t have the data for these things, can you help us understand why the rates for African Americans are so high, Chief Hurley?”
Hurley replied with the statement, ”I like to stay in my lane,” and continued to list off demographic numbers for the city limits of DeFuniak Springs. When addressing the numbers of 205 arrests made in the last six months in the city of DeFuniak Springs, 23.9% were Black, 14.1% were Hispanic, and 61.9% were White. “With that being said, that is roughly in line with the city’s demographics; they are not disproportionate by any means.”
Addressing traffic stops, Hurley stated that 13.2% were Black, 4.72% were Hispanic, and 82% were White out of a total of 973 traffic stops. Traffic citations, 8.26% were Black, 11.2% were Hispanic, and 80.7% were White.
Williams then asked Hurley a question relating specifically on the diversity of the DeFuniak Springs Police department.
Hurley informed the committee that he has 19 sworn officers in the DFS department, 20 in total counting Hurley himself, with one Native American, and one of Asian descent. Williams asked Hurley if there was a plan for the department to increase the diversity on the force.
“Most definitely,” Hurley responded, and continued to mention that there are currently some potential candidates willing to work on the force. Also, Hurley indicated that the DFS force size and rate of pay is not comparable to that of other agencies. “We pay a little less than other agencies based on the city revenue, but we are trying to move forward and have representation from our Black community that represents us as a police force also.”
Williams also asked the police chief to describe the department’s use of force. Hurley stated that since he has been in office, they have been working on upgrading the agency’s policies to reflect the current accreditation standards that ensure professionalism. While those policies might not be in writing, Hurley said that they work to implement those policies within the department.
“De-escalation is a tool that, I don’t think, a lot of law enforcement (agencies) sometimes use to their advantage – a lot of times just having that communication with people can de-escalate. Having relationships with your community can de-escalate. That why I feel it is important to hire officers that are from the community.” Hurley added that having grown up in the city and now working as the city’s police chief, knowing many of its citizens gives him an advantage and understanding that helps in the de-escalation process.
Questions were also asked about any complaints against the officers on the force. If any of the officers’ misconduct information is available to the public, Hurley replied that as of his tenure, there have been no complaints of officers in his department on excessive force.
Hurley stated that under the Florida Records Act and the State of Florida Sunshine Laws, all complaints or disciplinary actions are made available for the public.
Hurley also said that it is against the department’s policy to use chokeholds of any kind, but that it is also a matter of life or death, and that there may be a time or place for necessary measures to contain any situation.
Overall, there were about 38 people in attendance to the first, of what is stated to be several community conversations surrounding social justice in Walton County. Anyone interested in future events can reach out to the Cultural Arts Alliance of Walton County, the Committee for Justice, Equality, and Fairness. This first community dialogue was recorded, and it is hoped to be available to the public.