This article was published in partnership with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system. Sign up for The Marshall Project’s newsletter, or follow them on Facebook or Twitter.
The race for sheriff of Brevard County — the stretch of Florida coast east of Orlando that includes Cape Canaveral — has become a political test case for competing visions of American law enforcement.
The Republican incumbent, Wayne Ivey, is known nationally for tough-on-crime viral videos, in which he spins through mugshots on a “Wheel of Fugitive” and encourages citizens to arm themselves and confront the “bad guys” before his deputies arrive. Elected in 2012, Ivey ran unopposed in 2016 as Donald Trump swept the county by 19 points. Since then, the sheriff has appeared with the president at campaign rallies and White House events.
This November, Ivey will face Alton Edmond, a Black former public defender running as a Democrat, who promises to buy body cameras for deputies, increase diversity among top staff, ban the neck restraint tactic used by the police who killed George Floyd in Minneapolis, and stop making viral videos about suspects, which he calls “dehumanizing.”
But his best-known promise is to release a different kind of video: of a death in the jail that Ivey runs.
In 2018, a Black military veteran named Gregory Edwards was arrested during a PTSD episode, which, according to Florida Today, stemmed from his service as an army medic in Kosovo and Iraq. Ivey’s deputies punched, tased and pepper-sprayed Edwards, according to an internal investigation, before placing him in a spit hood and strapping him to a chair. An examiner ruled Edwards’ death an accident stemming from “excited delirium,” a disputed diagnosis often associated with deaths in police custody, and prosecutors cleared the deputies of wrongdoing.
This summer, crowds gathered outside Ivey’s office, demanding he release video of Edwards’ final moments. Ivey refused, citing security. “Where elsewhere the chant is, ‘I can’t breathe,’ here it’s, ‘Release the video,’” said Bobby Block, watchdog editor at Florida Today. The newspaper has covered the case extensively and filed a lawsuit to make the video public.
Still, multiple residents said Ivey remains popular in the county, which is 83 percent white. “I don’t think the societal upheaval that started on May 25th is greatly understood here,” Block said, referring to the date of George Floyd’s death.
Against the backdrop of Edwards’ death, the Ivey-Edmond race shows how sheriff elections are becoming partisan flashpoints, testing whether demands for law enforcement accountability can penetrate regions of the country where the president’s rhetoric is embodied by sheriffs like Ivey.
Sheriffs still benefit from associations with the Old West — many wear cowboy hats — but their primary job is to run jails, where people await their day in court or serve short sentences. (Given the addiction and mental health issues many detainees face, the job can be more akin to running a hospital, a point frequently made by Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart in Chicago.) In the field, sheriff deputies function like police officers, answering calls, investigating crimes and making arrests.
Southern sheriffs played a key role in the backlash against the civil rights movement, from Alabama’s Jim Clark, who used cattle prods on protesters in 1965, to Florida’s Willis V. McCall, who shot two Black defendants under suspicious circumstances. Even now, according to a study by the nonprofit civil rights group Color of Change, 90 percent of sheriffs are white men. This year, numerous sheriffs became media stars after refusing to enforce governors’ orders to wear masks and stay at home to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Unlike police chiefs, who are generally appointed by mayors, most sheriffs are elected and can lose their jobs if enough residents vote them out. But this doesn’t happen often.
“People often don’t know much about these elections, and will vote for the name they know, even if they’ve been hurting their communities,” said Nanci Palacios, an activist with Faith in Florida, a nonprofit that works with immigrants.
But that may be changing, if only because nothing is nonpartisan anymore.
Mike Chitwood, the sheriff of Volusia County — just north of Brevard — won in a nonpartisan race in 2016 and is not facing a challenger this year, but he said sheriff races are increasingly dominated by social media campaigns and jockeying for endorsements from groups like the NRA. He wants people to remember, “When you dial 911, nobody asks you if you’re Democrat or Republican.”
Two of Trump’s best-known campaign surrogates were sheriffs Joe Arpaio of Arizona and David Clarke of Wisconsin, and since 2016, many other sheriffs, including Wayne Ivey, have aligned themselves closely with his vision. “Trump does open this window for more national ambition than we would have previously seen among sheriffs,” said political scientist Emily Farris of Texas Christian University.
But other sheriffs are campaigning, and even winning, after pledging to defy the president by refusing to help federal authorities deport undocumented immigrants. For years, liberal activists have tried to transform the criminal justice system by electing prosecutors who promote rehabilitation and racial justice. Now, some are turning to sheriffs.
“It takes some education for people to see the role of sheriffs in mass incarceration,” said Delvone Michael, a strategist with the Working Families Party in Washington, who is helping candidates raise money and imagines a “tipping point” — a win by someone like Alton Edmond — might lead wealthy donors to take notice. Ohio sheriff candidate Charmaine McGuffey is promising to improve mental health and addiction programs in jail. Eliseo Santana in Florida is pushing body cameras and de-escalation tactics. Craig Owens in Georgia says he’ll end the use of solitary confinement in the county jail.
The idea of voting in a new sheriff, no matter how progressive, can seem like a half-measure to activists who want to reduce funding for law enforcement or even abolish it.
“I do think the protests have helped my campaign,” said Vance Keyes, a Black former police officer running for sheriff in Tarrant County, Texas, which includes Fort Worth. “But on the other hand it’s hurt.” He said he’s been called a “sellout” by people who “want nothing to do with police,” and is struggling to reach voters in the middle, “not the cheerleaders and the critics for whom you’ll never get it right.”
At the other end of the political spectrum, sheriffs like Wayne Ivey demonstrate the continuing popularity of the more punitive view of crime favored by Trump.
Shortly after taking office in 2013, Ivey sought advice from Arpaio in Arizona and instituted a chain gang, in which jail inmates worked on the side of the road in striped uniforms. The former editor of Florida Today, Bob Gabordi, wrote in a memoir that Ivey’s department refused to work with a Black reporter after characterizing him as “big, boisterous, and pushy.” Gabordi also said Ivey accused the reporter of getting facts wrong, which Gabordi said was untrue. Ivey has not addressed this publicly.
Complaints have also come from those locked up in Ivey’s jail. “The dorms and cells are infested with roaches, ants, and flying black bugs,” reads a handwritten petition, sent by 10 people incarcerated at the jail, to a federal judge in April (and dismissed because some of them didn’t pay a filing fee). In August, 174 inmates (out of roughly 1,500) were tested for Covid-19 and at least 48 tested positive, and in court petitions some have complained they are not given enough soap to prevent the virus’s spread.
Ivey declined to be interviewed for this article. In response to questions, he sent a statement through a campaign spokesperson, describing his long résumé in law enforcement and a 42 percent drop in crime since he became sheriff. (Edmond responded by pointing out that crime has fallen throughout Florida.)
“Sheriff Ivey has always stood strong for law and order and as a result, our agency is blessed to have amazing support from our community and citizens,” his campaign statement reads. “Sheriff Ivey has never concerned himself with what someone else running for office says or does as he is running for the office of sheriff and not against someone.”
Even Edmond’s supporters admit he faces long odds. “I tend to think a lot of our politicians thrive or die on a Sheriff Ivey endorsement,” said Colleen DeGraff, president of the county chapter of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, adding that Ivey’s “theatrics are pretty well received.”
Still, Graff thought Edmond was smart to announce his campaign in early June, at the height of the nationwide protests around policing. Despite his lack of law enforcement experience, he raised more than $14,000 over four days.
Soon after Edmond announced his candidacy, he started facing criticism around his support for the Black Lives Matter movement, particularly as Republicans at the national level painted the largely peaceful coalition as violent and dangerous. In June, Edmond wrote on Facebook that violence and looting could be a “necessary evil,” and, “if you value businesses more than you value the life of a Black man, you might as well be honest about who you are and join the Klan.” He deleted the posts, knowing they’d be contentious, but a local news website posted screenshots and a quote from Ivey: “Edmond knows the message and its intent is evil and wrong.”
“They were using racism to weaponize my words,” Edmond said.
Even before this year, Edmond had a reputation for tangling with local officials over questions of race. In 2017, he was fired by the county’s elected public defender, Blaise Trettis. Edmond said it was because he complained on Facebook about being admonished by Trettis, after he wore a Black Lives Matter tie to work. But Trettis, who is white, said the firing was for “good cause” after a series of incidents in which Edmond left a loaded gun on his desk, and also leaked recordings of his colleagues making comments about President Barack Obama that Edmond said made him feel unsafe as a Black man.
“I’d be surprised if Edmond gets 30 percent of the vote,” said Trettis, adding that Ivey “is only unpopular among some partisan Democrats who don’t like his politics.” In June, Trettis told Florida Today, “There's no question that Sheriff Ivey is 1,000 percent more qualified than Alton Edmond is to be sheriff."
Even if Ivey wins re-election, some residents think Edmond’s campaign may pressure him to make changes. Ivey has announced he would limit the use of neck restraints, which Edmond had promised to ban, and ousted a lieutenant who invited abusive police officers from around the country to come work for the Brevard sheriff’s department.
In June, the sheriff made a surprise appearance at the home of Kathleen Edwards, whose husband died in the jail in 2018, a visit she called "uncomfortable and unwanted." (He claimed to be there for a “wellness check” after she’d posted about her depressive thoughts on social media.) The widow’s sister sent out a video of the encounter. “To the sheriff's supporters, the video portrays a caring and compassionate lawman,” Florida Today reporter J.D. Gallop wrote, while his critics saw a clumsy effort “to resolve the growing political problem of Gregory Edwards' death.”
Similar pressure is building elsewhere. An incumbent sheriff in Williamson County, Texas, faces calls to resign after a Black man was killed by his deputies. He replied that he has cooperated with investigating authorities and the calls to resign are “motivated by partisan politics.” A sheriff in Clayton County, Georgia, faces lawsuits from civil rights groups over the spread of Covid-19 in his jail; he has so far declined to respond to the legal claims.
“We’re five years away from a Larry Krasner of sheriffs,” said Jessica Pishko, a political consultant who studied sheriffs at the University of South Carolina’s Rule of Law Collaborative. Krasner was elected district attorney in Philadelphia after promising a radical overhaul of the justice system.
Pishko sees liberal challengers like Edmond putting pressure on incumbent sheriffs to make policy changes. “Maybe you have a little fire under your butt,” she said, “maybe you have a little fear.”