In the wake of a series of controversies surrounding the treatment of African-Americans in Polk County, one public official stands alone with his integrity intact: Jerry Hill.
For many years Jerry Hill has served the citizens of Polk, Highlands and Hardee Counties as State Attorney. He is the man who has the final say in who is prosecuted. His power and responsibilities are enormous.
To my knowledge I’ve never been in the same room as Mr. Hill. Certainly, I don’t know the details of much of what he does and I cannot vouch for every decision he has ever made. I can, however, say with certainty that what he did in the wake of the “Police Dog and Protestors” controversy is admirable.
On Thursday of this past week, the Rev. Clayton Cowart and I announced on PMJA Radio the discovery of a disturbing email written by an Assistant State Attorney on Mr. Hill’s staff. That email suggested to at least two Polk County law enforcement agencies that K-9 units be used against peaceful civil rights protestors in 2012.
Rev. Cowart and I were unabashed in our condemnation of that email and urged the heads of all three agencies (the Winter Haven Police Department, the Sheriff of Polk County and the State Attorney’s Office) to join us in voicing concern for the safety and peace-of-mind of African-American and Latino residents in Polk County.
On Friday, by his own initiative, Jerry Hill called Rev. Cowart and asked to meet with him to express concern and regret for the fear created by that email. I was deeply touched by Mr. Hill’s willingness to reach-out to the African-American community. I was also moved by his humility in going to Rev. Cowart’s church to express those feelings.
The image of one of the most powerful white men in Florida visiting an African-American minister in his church is remarkable.
Mr. Hill’s swift actions are meaningful because he has already announced his plans to retire at the end of his term. He stood to gain nothing politically by making the trip from Bartow to Winter Haven to speak face-to-face with Rev. Cowart.
Mr. Hill’s initiative to address the concerns of the African-American community stands in stark contrast to the inaction of Winter Haven Police Chief Gary Hester and Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd. I am still hopeful that both men will follow Mr. Hill’s example and reach-out directly to the community that so desperately needs reassurance that those charged with enforcing the law will do so with integrity and sensitivity to the historical narrative that precedes this most recent controversy.