By Wayne Washington, Palm Beach Post

Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw skipped a community forum Monday night when his re-election opponents pledged to increase trust between the department and Black and immigrant communities.

People Engaged in Active Community Efforts — a coalition of religious congregations better known as PEACE — hosted the forum, which drew about 250 people to Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church, located in the heart of West Palm Beach’s largely Black Northwest community.

While Democrat Alex Freeman and Republicans Michael Gauger and Lauro Diaz attended the event, an empty chair represented Bradshaw, a Democrat who is seeking his sixth four-year term as sheriff.

The Rev. Jason Fairbanks, the pastor of the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Lake Worth Beach and the forum’s moderator, said: “Sheriff Bradshaw was invited to attend but could not attend due to a scheduling conflict.”

Audience members shook their head and groaned.

For years, PEACE has held forums on a wide range of community problems, and it has been unsparing in its criticism when elected officials decline to attend or don’t follow through on promises they made to the group.

Asked about the sheriff’s absence, the Bradshaw campaign said: “Sheriff Ric Bradshaw had notified the PEACE leaders about a work conflict for their forum this week. The Sheriff and the PEACE Board Members have a future meeting already scheduled to discuss ways to continue to collaborate on community priorities. Voters in the county have over 12 months before the election and plenty of time to get to know all the candidates.”

The primary election is scheduled for Aug. 20, 2024, with the general election set for Nov. 5.

Group wants to improve police-community relations

PEACE’s forum agenda for Monday night included a description of what the group calls a police-community relations problem.

“Each year, thousands of African-American and Hispanic residents of Palm Beach County experience ‘investigatory’ stops for minor things like rolling stop, failure to signal a turn or lane change, light too dim on the license plate, or sticker in the wrong place on the license place,” PEACE stated.

“These stops are more about the desire to investigate the driver and their passenger(s). In many stories, members are often asked questions like, ‘Whose car is this?’ or ‘What are you doing in this area?’ People of color feel targeted, leading to growing mistrust of the police.”

PEACE did not provide any data to buttress that assertion, but its description does align with anecdotal information offered by minorities here and across the country.

A spokeswoman for PBSO did not respond to a question about whether the department tracks traffic stops.

Fairbanks asked the candidates if they favor tracking traffic stops and tracking stops by race as a way of getting data to pinpoint areas of concern.

“I have no problem with establishing data that stops all of that,” said Gauger, who retired in 2021 after 50 years with PBSO. “Data doesn’t solve problems. If you have an administration that doesn’t have a history of holding people accountable, then that’s a problem. You have to build trust.”

Gauger’s statement was an extraordinary rebuke of Bradshaw, under whom he worked as PBSO’s second-in-command from 2005 to 2021.

Gauger told The Palm Beach Post in April that he met with his former boss to tell him he was going to run for sheriff.

“We had a frank discussion,” Gauger said. “He said he was disappointed. I said I was disappointed with how the agency is being run.”

Sheriff candidates weigh in on ideas to fix racial profiling

Bradshaw has been criticized for delays in outfitting deputies with body cameras and for a yearslong refusal to provide deputies with Narcan, a nasal spray used to treat suspected opioid overdoses. The sheriff reversed his stance, and PBSO deputies now have Narcan.

Gauger has said one of the reasons he left the department was because of his differences with Bradshaw on issues like the use of Narcan, viewed by many public safety officials and health advocates as a lifesaver.

Democrat Alex Freeman, soundly defeated by Bradshaw in the primaries in 2016 and 2020, has long criticized the sheriff for what he has described as a lack of transparency.

“I support tracking and analyzing data,” Freeman said Monday night.

Diaz, defeated by Bradshaw in the 2020 general election, agreed. But he said data alone won’t fix the problem of racial profiling.

“The first thing we have to do is admit that it does happen,” he said. “There is racial profiling. Yes, tracking is a very important part. We have the tool, but we are not using it. We have to be honest, ladies and gentlemen.”

Diaz disagreed with other candidates Monday night on the question of community policing. He argued it does not work, but other candidates said it would go a long way to building trust between law enforcement and Black and immigrant communities.

“We’ve got to go back to foot patrol and bike patrol,” Freeman said. “We have to show ourselves to them not just as the tough cop. It’s not us versus them. It’s us working together.”

Gauger said he also wants more community policing, adding that it would improve relationships with immigrant communities.

“We’re not border patrol,” he said. “We’re not immigration. If we don’t have a relationship, then we don’t get information from them when crimes occur.”

Bradshaw’s campaign pushed back on contentions that his department needs to improve relations with Black and immigrant community members.

“Unlike the other candidates, the residents of Palm Beach County know about Sheriff Bradshaw’s longstanding and strong record of public safety, and working with African American, Hispanic and other minority groups across the county,” the campaign said in a statement.

“The sheriff’s office holds regular food drives, supports kids and family events and works with religious leaders to ensure that there is a collaborative relationship in this community, and anything his opponents are saying to suggest racial tensions are political fictions at a time when we should be focused on peace and unity locally and globally.”

View the original story here.