Candidates talk school safety, accountability at Orange County sheriff debate

News 6 hosts final sheriff debate of campaign

By Adrienne Cutway - Web Editor

ORLANDO, Fla. - The three candidates for Orange County sheriff answered questions about school safety, the opioid epidemic and other hot topics during the final debate of the campaign, hosted by News 6.

News 6 anchor Justin Warmoth and investigative reporter Mike Holfeld moderated the debate, asking questions of veteran member of the Florida Highway Patrol Joe Lopez, former Orlando Police Chief John Mina and Democrat Darryl Sheppard.

Each candidate hammered home points on why they believe they would be the best fit to lead the Orange County Sheriff's Office.

For Lopez, it was his experience with the FHP, his time spent engaging with residents about their concerns and his commitment to integrity. Through what he called a listening tour, Lopez said he learned that residents want the top cop to be someone who is transparent and won't mislead them.

Mina also cited his experience, saying he's the only candidate who has supervised a department of the size and caliber that he has and through that leadership role he's garnered the support of the community and several local elected officials.

Sheppard admitted that he's lacking when it comes to law enforcement experience, but he said he makes up for it with his educational background and his commitment to change the status quo when it comes to policing in Central Florida.

While the candidates' responses often differed, they all agreed that when it came to school safety, arming teachers is not the right option. Instead, they suggested tightening security in other ways, whether that be hiring armed guardians, placing metal detectors, conducting random searches or using other reporting tools and resources.

The most contentious question of the night came when Holfeld asked whether the candidates support citizen review boards.

Sheppard was first to answer with a resounding "yes."

"You can give citizens a voice within their community. I think removing them out of that process is completely reckless and that's what you see with the other two candidates," Sheppard said, adding that these boards need the ability to enact change.

Lopez fired back, calling Sheppard "not well-educated" on the topic. He noted that there are other ways to hold deputies accountable and that during his time at the FHP, there were rarely instances of use of force but when there were, they were investigated in a timely manner.

Mina used his time to clarify statements he's made in the past about citizens review boards.

"What I have said in the past is that I'm not for a citizens review board like the current format we have in the city of Orlando," Mina said. "There's been a lot of frustration from community members and from the citizens review board because they really do not have true power because of the state laws ... They can't impose discipline and they can't reopen an investigation unless there's new evidence."

Instead, Mina said he would form a community advisory board that the Sheriff's Office could consult with on high-profile cases and could help enact policy change within the department.

On the rebuttal, Lopez said that the defunct advisory committee within the Sheriff's Office should be revitalized and reorganized in a way that's reflective of the community. Sheppard reiterated that the current methods of holding officers accountable are not effective and he would make sure that review boards actually have the ability to spark change.

Use of force allegations came up again when the candidates were asked about their stance on body cameras. All three candidates agreed that making sure every officer has a functional body camera is what's best for citizens and the law enforcement community alike.

Sheppard, however, said that there have been instances in use of force cases where the officer's camera was not operable.

"Every time there's an issue where there's an accusation of police misconduct, there's an issue with the bodycam," Sheppard said.

Mina said those instances only represent a small portion of cases of use of force and he said any officer who is being negligent when it comes to body camera usage will be punished accordingly.

Addressing the opioid crisis and lowering crime rates were two ways in which candidates were asked how they would improve life for the everyday Orange County citizen.

Lopez said one of his main goals as sheriff would be hiring more deputies and singling out the root cause of crimes in the area.

"Get back in the community. Start with the youth inside the schools. Talk to the youth. Talk to them about the crime that's going on out there. Educate them about the guns," Lopez said.

Mina also touched on the importance of getting involved with the community when it comes to solving crimes. Trust, he said, is paramount if officers expect witnesses and residents to come forward with tips on open cases.

But Sheppard said citizens, particularly minorities, don't trust law enforcement officers. He said that by bringing back accountability, the community could be more likely to want to interact with officers. 

Prevention and addressing mental health issues were factors Sheppard mentioned both in reference to reducing crime and quelling the opioid crisis. He said policy should focus on treatment rather than punishment for addicts.

"I think we need to put more resources into mental health and look at other ways that we can prevent people from getting into that and then once they do get involved, for any number of reasons ... we provide some other resources and alternatives to jail," Sheppard said.

Lopez noted that drug abuse in the community is a multi-tiered problem. He'd like addicts to have access to treatment that will help them kick the habit permanently.

"It's a problem. People are dying. It's a serious problem because you commit crimes when you're on opioids too," Lopez said.

Mina and Lopez both agreed that targeting dealers is one of the most efficient ways to stop drugs from ending up on the streets in the first place. Mina said the Orange County Heroin Task Force has done that by working with legislators to enact tougher mandatory sentencing laws for accused drug dealers.

"The thing we need to do, concentrate on the most, is prevention and intervention. I think our kids know heroin and drugs are dangerous but they don't realize you can use that drug one time and it could kill you," Mina said.

While the candidates mostly focused on the issues at hand, there were times when they took jabs at the other candidates' characters.

Sheppard ridiculed his opponents for changing their party affiliations shortly before kicking off their campaigns and made remarks implying that they could not be trusted.

"I just can't trust these two to give me the right answer or do the job that they say. They switched their (political) party at the last minute, we don't know what they'll switch once they're elected, if they're elected," Sheppard said.

Mina and Lopez both zeroed in on Sheppard's criminal record that includes more than a dozen arrests and the fact that he's never worked for a law enforcement agency.

"He's trying to highlight and put me in a negative light because of his lack of experience. He has no business being the sheriff in Orange County. He has no law enforcement experience. He is not even qualified to be a police officer in the county or the city and I couldn't even hire him as a crossing guard," Mina said.

All three men will be on the ballot for the Nov. 6 election. For more information on what else voters can expect to see, including key races and amendments, click here.

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