In the midst of one of history’s craziest time periods, this column kept slipping my mind and I honestly have felt guilt for not getting to it. Regardless of when I got to write this column, it does not take anything away from the amazing work that the Highlands County Sheriff’s Department has carried out over the past few months.
Under the leadership of Sheriff Paul Blackman, our local sheriff’s department has really gone above and beyond in their service. They have really set the standard for neighboring police forces through their strong relationship with the community. Rather than take an authoritarian stance in the community, Sheriff Paul Blackman and his deputies took the idea of community policing to a higher level.
One great aspect of our local sheriff’s department that makes it stand out is the COPS ADAPT Unit. This group of deputies is constantly seen throughout the community simply talking with locals and forming strong relationships with them. This is done through playing a simple game of basketball at the Boys and Girls Club of Avon Park or reading books to young children. What the COPS ADAPT Unit does in the community is so simple, but its benefits are endless. This is especially true in at-risk teenagers or children who are being pressured to go down a path of crime. When this unit of deputies reaches out to these teenagers before they succumb to this pressure, they are able to create a positive image of law enforcement and the law. Even in these unfortunate circumstances when the public image of police is low, the COPS ADAPT Unit maintained a good public image. People do not believe the false narrative that all police are bad because they remember playing a game of basketball with a sheriff’s deputy or just having a good conversation with a deputy.
Regardless of whether or not a deputy is a part of the COPS ADAPT Unit, regular officers are constantly doing good in our community. Deputy John Garrison of our very own sheriff’s department went viral after he stopped a woman from being a victim to a scam. After pulling her over for speeding, he overheard the scam on the phone, posed as her son, and saved the woman from losing $200.
The most recent feat of the Highlands County Sheriff’s Department was their recent changes following the death of George Floyd. Not only did Sheriff Blackman sympathize with those who were outraged at his death, but made immediate changes to his entire department. He began by meeting with the Sheriff’s Community Council to get an idea of what the public wanted to see. Sheriff Blackman then changed the use of force policy to require deputies to separate a person in custody from another deputy who may be mistreating them. He then went on to promote protests and affirm the public that they still had their right to assemble, but remained firm that the county could take strong action in the event of a riot situation. Finally, he made sure the department had sufficient manpower to handle any riot by increasing the amount of patrol units without presenting an authoritarian presence to any peaceful protests.
By doing these things, Sheriff Blackman found an impossible compromise between two polarized sides of an issue.
The Highlands County Sheriff’s Department and Sheriff Paul Blackman are setting the standard high for police forces. They do not need to place people in handcuffs in order to talk to the community and they act before someone dies. The hard work of this department is something that should never go unnoticed.
Miguel Arceo is a student athlete at Sebring High School.