As policing and criminal justice reform efforts grab national headlines, residents in Osceola County are preparing to vote in a highly competitive sheriff primary race this August.
On Wednesday night, three of the four candidates running for the most powerful law enforcement position in Osceola County talked transparency, change and community engagement during a virtual town hall hosted by the Democrats of St. Cloud.
The Osceola County sheriff’s race kicked off over a year ago when Mike Fisher and Marcos Lopez filed to run against fellow Democrat and incumbent, Russ Gibson.
On Aug. 18, voters across Osceola County will decide who advances to the November General Election against Luis “Tony” Fernandez — a no-party-affiliation candidate who joined the race in February.
This year, the Sheriff’s Office finished installing enough body cameras to outfit all officers in the field.
Gibson cited his fulfilled 2016 campaign promise as a commitment to transparency.
“I am 100 percent in favor of the cameras,” said Gibson, who has served in law enforcement for about 30 years. “It provides accountability for our deputies and requires transparency for our citizens.”
Nearby Orange County started using body cameras by 2016, and the equipment has also been in place at the Kissimmee and St. Cloud police departments since at least January 2018.
Fisher didn’t mince words about his dissatisfaction with how quickly Gibson rolled out agency body cams.
“The reality is these could have been purchased three years ago,” Fisher said. “It’s a priority now because it’s an election year.”
Defunding the police
When it came to defunding the police, Fisher deemed the controversial movement “an emotional response.”
Fisher — who served nearly 30 years with the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office before retiring as a captain in 2016 — said he wants to move the agency forward in a “progressive way” without compromising safety.
“The reality is, we don’t need to defund the police — we need the police,” said Fisher, who now oversees security at Universal Studios. “But I think we really need to look at transforming law enforcement.”
Fisher suggested improving implicant bias and de-escalation training for officers.
Leveraging technology to make information more accessible to the public was another recommendation by Fisher, who said he wants to post commonly sought-after data like crime and use-of-force statistics directly on the Sheriff’s Office website.
Gibson and Lopez echoed the sentiment that calls to reduce funding are an emotional — and unrealistic — response spurred by national outrage over the murder of George Floyd and other unarmed citizens.
No candidate mentioned the Black Lives Matter movement during the debate.
Lopez said he thinks the Sheriff’s Office has been underfunded for years, and that allocating additional resources to police education, mental health and training can elevate issues.
“There’s plenty of places to cut money from the budget in this county, and we need to be looking at those places first," said Lopez.
Gibson said no public safety department budgets should be cut — including the Sheriff’s Office. He added that local government can look at downsizing resources for parks and roads first.
The Sheriff’s Office budget has increased roughly 45 percent in the last six years, from $53.56 million in Fiscal Year 2014 to $77.86 million in Fiscal Year 2020, according to online county budget records.
Fisher said he thinks the current budget is adequate but believes annual funding increases from the Osceola County Commission can be put to better use.
“I don’t think it’s a money issue,” Fisher said. “I think it’s an allocation of resources issue.”
Recruitment of local minority officers
Hispanic residents make up 55.3 percent of Osceola County’s population, according to recent U.S. Census Bureau data. Another 14 percent are Black or African American.
A 2019 analysis by the University of Central Florida cited a lack of diversity and bilingual officers as a major hurdle for the agency.
The study, commissioned by the Sheriff’s Office in 2017, recommended the department offer bilingual incentive pay and sponsor bilingual candidates in local law enforcement academies to increase Spanish-speaking staffing levels.
“Available evidence suggests a need to hire several more bilingual people,” the study noted. “Active recruitment of Hispanic/Latino officers will be increasingly important as the county’s Hispanic/Latino population rises in coming years.”
Lopez is the only Hispanic Democrat candidate running. If he wins the August primary, he or Fernandez will become the first Hispanic sheriff in Osceola County.
“I am actually a representative of our large majority in this community, which is Latino,” said Lopez, who served 17 years at the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office after 22 years in the U.S. Navy.
Lopez also emphasized the need to expand recruitment within the county.
“You really need to look like the communities you serve,” Lopez said. “Law enforcement and its leadership needs to change as our diverse community has changed.”
Hiring and staffing officers
The Osceola County Sheriff’s Office, which employs approximately 420 sworn deputies, had 38 vacant positions in 2018.
The 2019 UCF study cited a “significant number of vacant patrol positions” within the agency.
Since taking office in 2017, Gibson has pushed to hire additional officers and staff.
The sheriff created a full-time recruiting unit, which he credits for receiving and processing 5,147 new applications.
Gibson bristled at accusations from Fisher that the sheriff has failed to meet department recruiting needs and fill vacancies.
“You can scoff all you want, Mike. It’s 20 vacant positions,” Gibson said. “And I can be fact checked.”
Gibson added that the Sheriff’s Office is in the process of hiring 30 new deputies to fill those vacancies.
Register to vote and future town halls
On July 15 at 7 p.m., the Democrats of St. Cloud will host a debate for Tax Collector and Clerk of the Court candidates.
The virtual meeting will be live streamed on the Democrats of St. Cloud and the Osceola Democrats Facebook pages.
The last day to register to vote in the August primary is July 20.
Only registered Democrats can vote in the closed primary sheriff’s race.