The message from a large group of local law enforcement officials was clear: People must see the human beings behind the badge and stop hurting or even killing them.
Joined Thursday by the FBI, the state attorney and mayors, Jacksonville Sheriff T.K. Waters addressed what he called the growing issue of violence against law enforcement officers.
That includes three Jacksonville officers injured in the line of duty since he took office, as well as deputies who died recently in St. Johns and Nassau counties.
The sheriff called the actions “reprehensible.” The community and law enforcement cannot accept this behavior, and his department must continue to be visible and show the community what’s going on, Waters said.
“I think it is important for people to understand that it’s not as easy as you think it is. We have officers out here that are doing things and putting their lives in jeopardy, and we all signed up for it. I’m never going to say we didn’t,” he said. “We recognize the dangers that are involved, but you don’t go in expecting someone to try to beat you to death. You don’t go expecting someone to take a shot at you. So my job is to raise awareness, to talk to our media, to talk to our community and say, ‘Let’s cut it out, and let’s move forward.’”
Stepping to the podium minutes later, St. Johns County Sheriff Robert Hardwick spoke strongly about the most recent law enforcement death, that of Sgt. Michael Kunovich in his department. The 25-year veteran collapsed Friday while trying to arrest a man he was questioning at a closed business. The sheriff said he will not tolerate such behavior against his deputies.
“As the body camera footage will show you, it was legal, by the book, doing his job to the best of his abilities, And all the suspect had to do was comply,” Hardwick said.
“Instead the suspect chose to try to remove a knife from his left side pocket, and the struggle was on with Sgt. Kunovich until the next deputy showed up 37 seconds later,” he said. “Ultimately the sergeant succumbed basically to some medical issues that actually were induced by the struggle with our subject.”
Waters joined Hardwick, Nassau Sheriff Bill Leeper, FBI Special Agent in Charge Sherri Onks, State Attorney Melissa Nelson and Mayor-elect Donna Deegan on the stage as they spoke about recent incidents where deputies, officers and police dogs have died or been injured in confrontations with suspects.
Onks said 118 law enforcement members were killed nationwide in 2022. Hardwick added that since he took over as sheriff 2½ years ago, there have been 389 assaults and batteries against his deputies.
Nelson said the State Attorney’s Office has opened close to 1,000 cases against people who have resisted arrest with violence in recent years. Another 1,000-plus cases have been opened against people who have attacked officers, she said. And her prosecutors have filed close to 20 cases against people who have tried to kill police officers. She read the names of officers who have been killed, including Kunovich.
“These are the men and women who have suffered unprovoked and devastatingly violent assaults. In some cases these officers were stabbed with knives. In other cases they were ambushed, stomped and beaten. Others still, they were shot,” Nelson said. “In all of these cases, each officer, just like these here today, were simply doing their job.”
The motivation behind almost a third of deaths is hatred of police, Nelson said, quoting an FBI report. Anti-police attitude has become worse in recent years as social media and popular culture have amplified it, even “glorifying the notion that it is OK to physically oppose the police. And it is not,” she said.
Losses in recent years
After Kunovich’s death, 18-year-old Vergilio Aguilar Mendez was charged with resisting with violence and felony murder. He remains held without bail at the St. Johns County Jail. The sergeant’s funeral services are set for 10 a.m. Friday at St. Joseph Catholic Church on Old St. Augustine Road, with interment at Oaklawn Cemetery, according to the sheriff.
A number of Jacksonville police officers have been injured in recent years, including the three since Waters took office in November.
- In late March, Officer Malink Daricaud was shot and critically injured at a home on Ridgeview Avenue, as investigators prepared to question a man who had fled from a traffic stop a week earlier, Waters said.
- On Jan. 20, another officer was shot in the 1800 block of Hardee Street off Kings Road, when officers tried to get a man out of a car as they followed up on a burglary. Seconds later, the man fired a gun, grazing the lead officer in the face. The five officers returned fire, killing a man later identified as Leon Bernard Burroughs, 39.
- In early October, a burglary suspect opened fire on police near the 4100 block of Old Middleburg Road, hitting one in the back, but the officer was wearing a bulletproof vest, according to the Sheriff’s Office. The man believed to have shot the officer fled as he fired more shots, then died after jumping off the Dames Point bridge into the St. Johns River.
The Nassau County’s Sheriff’s Office has had two deputies killed in the line of duty in recent years.
- In late 2016, an SUV hit and killed Deputy Eric James Oliver, 32, on State Road 200 as he chased a suspect across the highway. The suspect, Francisco Obidio Portillo-Fuentes of El Salvador, was deported back to his country after he was found to be illegally in this country, the Sheriff’s Office said.
- On Sept. 23 last year, Deputy Joshua Moyers, 29, was shot in the face and back after he stopped a minivan about 3 miles south of Callahan on Sandy Ford Road. A second deputy found Moyers wounded on the ground; the minivan, stolen in Jacksonville, was found abandoned nearby. Moyers died a few days later.
Police dogs also have been injured.
- A Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office dog, Chaos, was shot during the manhunt for suspect Patrick Rene McDowell, but later recovered. The 36-year-old suspect pleaded guilty March 10 to first-degree murder, injuring a police dog and eight more counts of aggravated assault of a police officer, prosecutors said.
- A car chase and shootout in July 2022 on Zoo Parkway left two men dead and another behind bars. Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office K-9 Huk was shot three times after he ran into crushed underbrush toward the suspects’ crashed Dodge Charger. Huk was also involved in the five-day manhunt for McDowell in Nassau County, grabbing the suspect as he crawled out of a bathroom in Callahan.
- Another Sheriff’s Office dog was threatened with a knife on April 12 in the Bentwater Place subdivision when suspect Matvey Klimenko fled from police after a 10-hour standoff. A Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office SWAT member shot and killed the man as he raised the knife at a police dog that was sent to stop him.
Thursday’s news conference came a day after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill increasing criminal penalties for those who harm, harass or willfully resist an animal working with police officers, firefighters, or search and rescue teams.
The penalty for maliciously touching, striking, or causing bodily harm to a police, fire, or search and rescue canine or police horse rises from a first-degree misdemeanor to a third-degree felony. The bill also increases the penalty for maliciously harassing, teasing or interfering with a police, fire, or search and rescue dog or police horse from a second- to a first-degree misdemeanor. It also makes it a third-degree felony to resist, obstruct, oppose or threaten violence against a police dog or horse working together with an officer.
Is the public apathetic?
Waters said police officers leave families and friends to “promote peace and provide for the safety and security” of the community. But in recent years, he said, the violence against police officers “simply because they are police officers” has exploded. There has been a 170% increase against police in the past eight years, but the general public does not seem to be outraged or demanding action, he said.
“For some reason, we are not seeing that outrage when the hate-filled violence is perpetrated against those who serve law enforcement,” Waters said. “One can only presume that apathy toward the increased violence represents a belief that this violence is expected and deserved. Let me say to you, it is not.”
Asked how the Sheriff’s Office can make the community better understand his department, transparency is key, Waters told WJCT News.
“If people really know what really goes on within the agency, the more I can show them, the more that they feel they are part of it and this is their agency and I’m their sheriff that they elected, it’s not a secret from them,” Waters said. “We want to show them everything we can show them, as long as it’s legal and doesn’t interfere with any investigations.”
As part of that transparency, Waters said a town meeting is set for July 19 to show residents some of the changes he has made in his six months in office.