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Columbia County: Civilian Review of the Sheriff’s Office Nixed – Sheriff Say’s He Does It Himself

Sheriff Mark Hunter with caption: Sheriff Mark Hunter. He put the brakes on civilian review

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – Sheriff Mark Hunter generally has smooth sailing in Columbia County. A couple of recent incidents brought to light that there was trouble brewing. One incident had a police K-9 taking a big chunk out of a man’s leg; another had a police officer with a history of excessive force pulling a handcuffed man out of a patrol car and punching him in the head.

On February 4, 2021, businessman and community activist Sylvester Warren told the Columbia County 5, "There is a huge disconnect and distrust between the black community and law enforcement. I think everybody should be in favor of the citizens' review board." County Chairman Rocky Ford said, “I don’t oppose it.” On Thursday evening, June 3, things changed.

Background: February 4, 2021

On February 4, some of Columbia County’s black community spoke out about what they considered excessive behavior in the Lake City Police Department and the Columbia County Sheriff's Office.

During the February 4 meeting of the County Commission (County 5 or The 5), Sylvester Warren asked The 5 to be a partner “with the issues that we have going on with law enforcement. I have a sign, and it says, "Am I next?" It deals with an awful situation by law enforcement - a canine - this dog's been sicked on him.”

Mr. Warren continued, “I know some people are going to ask, ‘Have you talked to the Sheriff about a citizens review board?’ My answer is yes. I spoke to the Sheriff several times.”

Mr. Warren said, “Many of you all who know the Sheriff, he's arrogant; he's hard to get along with; you can't tell him nothing - he knows it all.”

“He's refused. He's dug his heels in. I even spoke to him on Deputy Bruenger -- punched a handcuffed kid, pulled him out of the backseat of a car, and punched him in the head. The Sheriff tried to get me to see how it was OK that a handcuffed kid got punched in the head by a deputy.”

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Chairman Rocky Ford responded, “At the end of the day, he is an elected official. He is accountable to the citizens of Columbia County.”

Mr. Warren continued, “You can't regulate the Sheriff. You could ask the Sheriff to be a partner in doing the right thing and helping to establish a citizen review board for more transparency and more accountability.”

Mr. Warren said, “I'm asking for the citizens to be heard. There is a huge disconnect and distrust between the black community and law enforcement. I think everybody should be in favor of the citizen review board.”

Chairman Ford replied, “I don't oppose it.”

Commissioner Robby Hollingsworth said, “We don’t have a problem asking the Sheriff if he wants to do it.”

Commissioner Ronald Williams said, “We can’t make him, but we can ask him if he would entertain that idea.”

Chairman Ford, “We’ll get to work on that with your help.”

Commissioner Toby Witt concluded, “We can say, ‘Let’s form one,’ but without his buy-in, it’s useless. The dialogue needs to be between the citizens and the Sheriff. You've heard our reaction tonight. We're open to the idea.”

Sheriff Mark Hunter did not attend the February 4 meeting.

Thursday Evening, June 3, at the County 5
Civilian Review - A Different Story

County Attorney Joel Foreman (file)

County Attorney Joel Foreman opened the civilian review discussion by reading three paragraphs from a memorandum he prepared for the County 5. Mr. Foreman added his spin, leaving out the background, which had Mr. Warren in front of The 5 on February 4.

Mr. Foreman concluded his presentation, adding that he spoke with the Sheriff and announced that the Sheriff is not in favor of a Civilian Review Board.

It is unclear why he said that, as the Sherriff was in attendance.

Who speaks first? The Sunshine Law Goes Out the Window as County Attorney Foreman Looks On Silently

Chairman Ford addresses the Sheriff: “Sheriff, would you like to come up at this time and address this?”

Florida Sunshine takes a hitCommissioner Hollingsworth leans over and whispers to Commissioner Witt.

Commissioner Witt leans over to Chairman Ford, speaking under his breath, “I’d do public comment.”

Chairman Ford (to no one in particular): “You wanna do public comment first?”

No one responded.

Chairman Ford said, “OK, we'll do public comment at this time.”

An audience member says, “We’d like to hear from the Sheriff first.”

Chairman Ford said, “Naah, we’ll do public comment first.”

Commissioner Murphy whispers something to Chairman Ford.

Public Comment

Former School Board member Linard Johnson said he was in favor of a citizen advisory board.

B Faithful Coker
B Faithful Coker (file)

Next up was B Faithful Coker. Years ago, her son was kidnapped from the Richardson Middle School with what she said at the time was the help of the Sheriff’s Office.

Ms. Coker addressed the County 5: “A citizens’ advisory board I don't support because there is still some more effort we need to extend to reduce crime. We have criminals telling elected officials how to behave. We have criminals serving as go-to contact people in communities. Until citizens are given the right amount of information to know where they need to turn… we have some other things to deal with before we start putting citizens in a capacity to provide oversight to law enforcement.”

Derrick Snead (file photo)Mr. Derrick Snead addressed The 5: “My experiences with the Columbia County Sheriff's Department are awful... There is no accountability; there is no transparency… I read police reports that are just flat-out falsehoods. That's what it is. They flat out lie in it.”

Vanessa George
Vanesse George (file)

An angry Vanessa George came to the microphone: “I’m not commin' up here to try and convince you for a citizen review board because your minds are already made up. We could tell by your body language. When Mr. Johnson was up, Tim Murphy was twirlin' in his chair; you all [are] lookin' down. Your mind is already made up. You are very disrespectful to the citizens… We should have listened to the Sheriff. We want to hear his point of view as well… It's very disrespectful. I know you don't care, and it shows.”

Sylvester Warren: He knew he was “spinnin’” his wheels.

Mr. Warren claimed that Sherriff Hunter let it be known before the meeting that he had enough votes on the County Commission to kill a citizen review board. “I know I’m spinnin’ my wheels up here. I know the minds are made up… It’s very unfortunate that Sheriff Hunter told the County Attorney to tell the public before even waiting to discuss having a conversation with us citizens that he's not for a citizen review board.”

Mr. Warren brought up that Sheriff Hunter tried to convince both him and Commissioner Hollingsworth that it was OK for now-former Deputy Burenger to punch a handcuffed person while in custody. Mr. Warren also brought up the K-9 biting incident in which a police dog was sicked on someone already in custody.

Mr. Warren said, “Far too often, this happens to people that look like me.”

Mr. Warren concluded, “Nothing is wrong with more transparency…but when it comes to the Sheriff, we're just gonna give him a pass on transparency?”

Sheriff Hunter: He spoke for over 30 minutes

Columbia County Sheriff Mark HunterSheriff Hunter began:  “I have a few comments that I would like to make. Citizen Review Board. I'm all about transparency with our Sheriff's office. I'm all about having the trust and respect of our community. It’s paramount in our profession. One of the things that kind of bothers me is whenever you take a solution, and you go looking for a problem to try to work your solution.”

Sheriff Hunter implied that the national narrative (large communities where they have lost community policing) does not apply in Columbia County.

Sheriff Hunter made the conversation about him.

Chairman Rocky Ford llistens
Chairman Rocky Ford listens.

He said, “Since all this started up, I've been accused of being a narcissist. I've been accused of being a predator. I've been accused of being arrogant. And yet, these are the people that say they want to come and work with me to try to help us make the Sheriff's office better. Kind of makes you think twice about that. What are the true intentions?”

Sheriff Hunter added, “I am not above having an advisory group.”

Commissioner Tim Murphy, a boyhood friend of the Sheriff, listens.
Commissioner Tim Murphy, a boyhood friend of the Sheriff, listens.

Sheriff Hunter said that in the past when the nature of certain incidents required it, he would invite people to his office to view videos. He then went on to say that he was originally not in favor of body-cams but changed his mind, qualifying his statements with he thought some incidents should not be made available to the public.

Sheriff Hunter spoke about emotions getting out of hand, and it can be difficult to talk to people because of "cultural differences." He did not explain what those cultural differences were or why those incidents involving "cultural differences" were “difficult.”

Coming in to see the Sheriff: Is that civilian oversight?

Commissioner Toby Witt
Commissioner Toby Witt listens.

Sheriff Hunter asked The 5 not to embrace the resolution explaining, "I have an open-door policy. Anyone that wants to come out and see me can come out and see me.”

Sheriff Hunter said, “I've been around and talked to a lot of folks in the community [he appeared to be referencing the black community], a lot of people in the community. And I've not heard an outcry to have a citizen advisory board… I’m open to having people come to my office.”

Sheriff Hunter said, “There are so many things. It’s so multi-faceted. I'm a little taken back. I don't understand. If a group of people got together and came to me and said, ‘Sheriff, we'd like to review some records. Would you take time to do that?’ I wouldn't have a problem with that at all.”

County Commissioner Robby Hollingsworth
Commissioner Robby Hollingsworth

“But what I don't want to have is a group of people who are out on a witch-hunt, that want to show up and be agitators and not facilitators for having better law enforcement in our community.”

Sheriff Hunter said, “I don't see the need to have a formal citizen advisory board. I would ask that you not support the resolution. Even though it's not binding, I would ask that you not support that.”

Commissioner Ronald Williams
Commissioner Ronald Williams listens.

He added, “I know that we have different areas in the County, and some are unique. And we try to regulate that on how we police in those different areas.”

Only Commissioner Hollingsworth had a question.

The 5 had some comments. They were anticlimactic.

Commissioner Witt made a motion to deny the resolution, which was in favor of civilian oversight of the Sherriff’s Office.

The vote was 4-1, with Commissioner Williams voting against.


Sheriff Hunter, during his presentation, mentioned that only one Sheriff's Office in Florida has civilian oversight.

For now, Columbia County is not going to be number two.

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