MIDDLEBURG – Monday’s town hall meeting in Middleburg offered Clay County Sheriff Darryl Daniels and a few of his top-ranking deputies the chance to speak directly to the community.
The event – the second event of its type – began with Daniels saying how poor the turnout was at a similar event in the Oakleaf community. About 35 residents joined more than a dozen CCSO deputies who took up much of the room inside the Middleburg Civic Association building.
Drugs and school resource officers became the top two topics of discussion for the event. Attendees appeared extremely concerned with the drug problem in the area, with some raising concerns over having personally observed drug deals in broad daylight. The sheriff and his staff assured attendees they are there and will continue to eradicate drugs from the area and Clay County.
“We’re still going to be out there. I’ve seen people upset that we’re stopping vehicles and we’re doing things that are holding them up as they go places, and I apologize for that, but I’m not going to apologize for trying to stop the drug trade out there,” said Chief Wayne McKinney. “[In the last two months] we did 472 traffic stops. One of the things I found interesting was the total vehicle searches we did was 126 and we made 98 drug arrests, that’s a pretty high percentage of the people we actually search that actually have dope in their car.”
According to the Sheriff’s Office, they are finding the drugs through more enhanced investigations at routine traffic stops. Patrol vehicles are stopping cars for moving violations, but will ask the driver first if they have anything illegal in their car, and then they will ask for permission to search the car. If permission is denied, the sheriff reminded the audience that they can legally say no to a search, and they will bring a police dog to do a quick sniff-sweep of the exterior of the vehicle. According to the sheriff, and the law, the entire stop should take no longer than the 30 minutes allowed for a typical traffic stop.
“If you ain’t doing nothing wrong, you ain’t got no problems,” Chief Kenny Stivers said. “The dogs are trained to hit on dope scent – if you don’t have dope in your car, but the guy who rode with you to Winn-Dixie was smoking dope, the dog is going to hit on your car. So understand, OK, take some responsibility. If you’ve got a pothead friend, don’t let him ride in your car.”
The sheriff then went on to talk about the amount of police work that is done on a daily basis that the department does not publicize, including the recent seizure of four kilograms of uncut fentanyl and $55,000 cash, and the same person being caught with a trafficking amount of heroin on Fleming Island, according to the sheriff.
“There’s a lot of things that go on that you have no idea about what’s happening. There’s men and women who work in an undercover capacity that put their lives in serious danger to keep you safe and you’ll never ever hear about them,” he said. “You’ll never hear about the fruits of their labor because we don’t publicize everything.”
The drugs the sheriff discussed Monday were recovered as part of an active investigation alongside the State Attorney’s office, according to Public Information Officer Chris Padgett, and no arrests have been made as the narcotics unit is still gathering evidence to ensure all parties involved are caught.
“Narcotics is a different realm because they work [with undercover officers and confidential informants] on these types of cases,” Padgett said. “Documentation doesn’t always get submitted because it is very active intel.”
As the drug arrests conversation died down, the sheriff was asked about what was going to happen regarding School Resource Officers in Clay County Schools. The sheriff took a firm position early on that he was not happy with the plan set in motion by the Clay County School District, and that going forward he expects deputies serving as school resource officers in each school.
“I’ll say this, that is not the ideal scenario for Clay County – my opinion – but the school board has elected to fund school resource officers being in the high schools and junior high schools and then they would like for guardians to be in the elementary schools,” Daniels said. “It came down to money, not Sheriff’s Office money, school board money. The law says that the school board owns the SRO program.”
Daniels said that the guardian program wasn’t something he had to agree to. Despite his distaste for the idea, though, he said he would support it temporarily.
“I don’t have to participate in the guardian program, I can say, ‘We’re not gonna do a guardian program in Clay County,’ now that puts it back on school board to fund up school resource officers for all the schools,” he said. “Where are they going to get the money from in short fashion? They’re not, so this is the prudent thing to do.”
Daniels said at one point that maybe someone from the school board, or that Superintendent Addison Davis should have been invited so that they could have answered questions specifically related to their budget and decisions regarding the issue. Though not present Monday evening, Davis responded to some of the questions asked from the school’s perspective.
“As Superintendent of Schools, I agree that funding should be placed on visibility and accessibility of law enforcement,” Davis said. “In our school district it was an underfunded mandate. With that said, it’s very clear that, to have school resource officers in every school would be $5.6 million, which we do not have.”
Davis said he has a shared goal with Daniels to put school resource officers in every school across the county.
“I aspire to put SROs in all of the schools, but right now we don’t have the [financial]resources to do that,” Davis said. “We’re doing what we can while still focusing on teaching and learning. We can’t remove instruction and curriculum and continue to provide accelerated opportunities for our students to compete not just locally but nationally.”
Daniels cited the July 1 deadline for the school district to submit a list of applicants’ names to the sheriff who will then move into the 144 hours of training required by the state for those chosen as guardians.
“There are people who, a little over 30 people, have applied to fill the roles as guardians. It’s kinda odd because the people have to already be employees of the school district to even be considered for guardians,” Daniels said. “The spirit of the way that the law is written was so that a current school employee who has a concealed weapons permit, who wants to be in this program, would be in the program. But the district went a different route, or is going a different route, and they’re hiring from the outside and gonna make these people employees.”
Daniels said he’s not concerned with whether or not they’re current employees as long as they pass a background check, psychological examination and other requirements involved in the 3.5-week training course. Daniels said that every time he gets the opportunity he asks Davis for the list of names, seemingly concerned with the amount of time it would take to train the guardians, but that he should be fine as long as he has the list by the July 1 deadline.
Davis said the district is treating the process with great importance, and they have had almost double the number of applicants that Daniels cited who are already undergoing interviews with a panel of experts who Davis pulled to help with the hiring.
“We have had over 65 apply, and we have been vetting internally this week,” Davis said. “Included on the panel is a deputy from the sheriff’s office to make sure we are selecting the right individuals.”
Davis continued about the district’s joy in the amount of interest they have received for the positions, and that he is working to get the candidates’ information to the sheriff as soon as possible to get training underway.
“We are excited about the pull with 65 candidates, we’ll be able to narrow that down to 30 candidates and probably send more than 30 to the training,” Davis said. “We are excited that the Sheriff is willing to work with us to fulfill that need while we seek additional funding that would place SROs in every school. We’ll have the list to him this week so they have it in hand a few weeks early.”