The Sheriff Candidate Who Is Challenging “The Poster Child for the Trump Administration”

Eliseo Santana, running for sheriff in Florida’s Pinellas County, wants to end collaboration with ICE, reduce arrests, and shift some funds toward health services.

Daniel Nichanian   |    October 2, 2020

Eliseo Santana (Photo from Santana/Facebook)

This article originally appeared on The Appeal, which hosted The Political Report project.

Eliseo Santana, running for sheriff in Florida’s Pinellas County, wants to end Sheriff Bob Gualtieri’s collaboration with ICE, reduce arrests, and shift some funds toward health services. 

As President Trump cheered this summer for a harsh response to Black Lives Matter, Bob Gualtieri, the Republican sheriff of Florida’s populous Pinellas County (St. Petersburg), helped ensure that protesters arrested at a demonstration would be denied bail by spinning a story that the chief judge later called misleading.

After the mass shooting in Parkland in 2018, Gualtieri was chairperson of a state commission investigating it that ended up recommending armed teachers in schools, an action he staunchly defended

And amid legal challenges to Florida sheriffs’ policies of detaining people for ICE, Gualtieri helped design a new arrangement for sheriffs to circumvent legal concerns and keep assisting the federal agency. 

These activities have made Gualtieri a cause célèbre for the national right. He was named Sheriff of the Year by the National Sheriffs’ Association in 2019; in 2020 he was appointed to Trump’s commission on policing.

But they have also made Eliseo Santana, a longtime employee of the sheriff’s office who is running as the Democratic nominee, intent on defeating him on Nov. 3.

“The current sheriff is the poster child for the Trump administration,” Santana told me this week. Gualtieri also presided over the Florida Sheriffs Association over the last year.

In a Q&A with The Appeal: Political Report, Santana denounced many of Gualtieri’s emblematic stances. He explained he was “horrified” by the sheriff’s proposal to arm teachers and more broadly called on the state to revisit the new mandate for schools to have armed officers. He said he opposed the state’s “Stand Your Ground” statute, which Gualtieri invoked in 2018 to justify his decision to not arrest Michael Drejka, a white man who fatally shot a Black man after confronting him over a parking spot. And he pledged to terminate Pinellas County’s existing contracts with ICE, including the county’s membership in the agency’s 287(g) program, which authorizes sheriff’s deputies to act like federal immigration agents.

“I will not have my agents be the agents of destroying families in our community,” he said when asked about his views on collaborating with ICE.

Santana’s platform goes beyond ending policies that have put Gualtieri on the national map, though. He outlined decarceral goals that are still relatively rare to hear from sheriff’s candidates.

He made the case that fewer people should be booked into the jail. “An arrest can lead to greater insecurity, and with greater insecurity we have higher levels of crimes and violence,” he said.

He said he would set a presumptive standard of not arresting people for some low-level offenses like driving on a suspended license or simple drug possession, instead issuing them a warning or a citation for which they have to appear in court. Sheriff’s deputies make arrests at their discretion. Further north in Florida, Gadsden County Sheriff Morris Young has drawn national attention for his policies of minimizing arrests; some sheriffs elsewhere have also put in place cite-and-release policies.

Santana also explained he wants to shift some of the sheriff’s budget, both internally toward programs that aren’t premised on arresting people, and also to services and agencies outside of law enforcement that he says would be better equipped at handling mental health issues.  

Pinellas County is a narrowly divided county that voted for President Barack Obama in 2012 and then Trump in 2016, before swinging back to supporting Democrats in the 2018 elections for governor and U.S. Senate. Because of a law that the state’s Republican Party passed last year, all of Florida’s elections this fall will exclude residents from voting  who have not been able to pay off their court debt linked to felony convictions.

The interview was condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

You have stated in a candidate questionnaire that: “We need to re-allocate resources away from community domination and towards community service.” What do you mean by this?

When we have a response model, when the police is called on by 911, and they respond to a situation, they are imposing themselves as an outside force. If we were in a life and death situation, that would be a very important response. But the majority of calls for help are not that extreme. Often, they’re based on some kind of mental illness crisis, drug abuse, or family disturbance. The majority of our resources and funding has been for that rapid response—take care of the situation and then leave—whereas I see community policing as an essential element. It is imperative that we have a peace officer get to know the neighborhood, and instead of being reactive to a situation that has become a crime, they can be proactive. So that’s the reallocating of the funds—from building a tank, getting machine guns, having a bulletproof vest, and then going in there controlling the situation, arresting somebody, and taking them away. We need to move away from that model.

When you speak of reallocation, are you only thinking of shifting funds to other law enforcement programs? Would you also favor steering funds toward programs that operate outside of law enforcement & the sheriff’s office? 

As sheriff, I am responsible for the well being and safety of people within Pinellas County. It is not to arrest people; my responsibility is to keep everyone safe. If I see that there is a need to address a core issue, and by redirecting my funds toward that I see a direct reduction in crime and in the population of the jail, I’d rather spend that money at the front end than at the hind end.

So what comes to mind right now in Pinellas as needing more funding for community services that are not in the law enforcement umbrella? For instance, programs are being set up in some places for civilian departments to respond to 911 calls involving issues relating to mental health or homelessness, rather than law enforcement officers. Is that something you’d like to see?

Absolutely. I will build up the necessary support to back that from the municipalities and the county. When you have a call going through 911, we need to be able to screen it, to see if the person calling is asking because their child has a mental crisis. We need to have a specialist that can handle that type of a situation right off the bat and not a law enforcement officer whose only training is to arrest and to take people in.

If we’re able to spend this money at the front end and get people the help they need without incarcerating them, it’s not just saving some money, it’s also keeping people out of jail.

Let’s talk more about reducing the jail: There’ve been calls to reduce incarceration around the country, of course, and often people look at the role of prosecutors. What could you from the office of the sheriff accomplish in that regard?

Individual deputies have the ability, when they confront minor level infractions, of forgetting about it and giving a verbal warning, or doing a citation to have them appear before court, or arresting the individual. As sheriff, I set the direction on how that is going to happen. When there is a minor infraction that is not going to lead to a threat to our community, I do not want somebody to be arrested and taken to jail. So that will leave two alternatives, up to the individual officer: Either they’ll give out a citation for appearance, or a verbal warning. 

When we take somebody out of the community and arrest them, and put them in jail for two or three days until they see the magistrate, if they have a job it is very likely they just lost it, and when they apply for another job, they have to list that they’ve been arrested and that makes it very difficult for them to find additional work. An arrest can lead to greater insecurity, and with greater insecurity we have higher levels of crimes and violence. 

What policies would you put in place to have clear standards of not arresting people for lower level offenses, given that moments of individual discretion can feed inequality in terms of who benefits from that second chance and who does not.

It comes with training. When you leave something to the discretion of an individual, then their own biases, whether they know about them or not, come into play. And so it is important that when we give them this ability of choice, we also give them the training to be able to recognize what they carry with them. I will be putting in body cameras. It will allow me as this ultimate supervisor to see that they are doing the protocol and applying it equally to all the individuals. 

Again in the interest of identifying how you would narrow the possibility for arrest, are there specific types of behavior for which you would set a presumption of non-arrest? For instance, I’m thinking of cases of simple drug possession, or behaviors tied with homelessness.

Yes to all of what you said. One of the things is when somebody is driving and they do not have a driver’s license, or have an expired tag. 

And, depending upon the infraction, like with homelessness or drugs, give the deputy the ability of doing a referral to the proper professional that would be able to assist them and resolve some of these issues, so they’re not a repetitive thing.

You’ve talked about training. One problem that’s continually exposed is that rules only go so far if there’s a culture of impunity or lack of accountability. So what can you do as sheriff to make sure that these rules have any teeth and consequences? For instance, what can you do to ensure you are not hiring people with a history of misconduct?

The deep cultural change within the agency occurs from the very top. I will follow up on this situation and make sure that every single officer knows that this is my values, this is what I would do and they have to act accordingly. The body camera is essential to give me some of that feedback. And it’s not just making sure that we screen and eliminate those that come with baggage, we also need to have the training process be reflective about values. If the training officer has extreme biases, every new person coming in is going to have that bias.

Would you be in favor of creating a civilian review board with an oversight role over the sheriff’s department and with independent powers like those of issuing a subpoena to the sheriff’s department if they choose to?

Absolutely. It is beyond necessary. The civilian review board, someone that has full access to all of the records and all of the information pertaining to what we’re looking at, is essential. 

Another aspect of reducing the jail population, beyond reducing arrests, is what happens once people are booked in jail. Do you feel like the pretrial policies of the county are appropriate at present? How can you as sheriff change pretrial detention?

The system that we have is attacking people that are not economically well. When you have no credit, when you have no asset, then you have to have cash to be able to bond out. If you do not have the money, then you’re held hostage in the jail until a family member or somebody comes up with the money to let you go. And that to me is offensive, it’s something that needs to be eliminated. I do not want to have somebody be in jail because they’re poor. That comes from the state legislators, and also with different courts. So I would be coordinating with them to eliminate that so we have less people detained in precourt processes that are not a threat to our community. But even more than that, let’s stop arresting people that don’t need to be in jail.

When the pandemic began, county officials made a concerted effort to reduce the jail population by releasing people on their own recognizance, and also arresting fewer people. Do you think policies like that should be extended to non-pandemic times?

The process that we have now should continue. Obviously the people that were released, they didn’t need to be in jail, they were not a threat to our community. And after the pandemic, they’re still not a threat to our community, and they don’t need to be in jail. 

It took a crisis to be able to get people to wake up and reduce our jail population. But it’s always been a crisis. It’s just that they had not been aware of it.

Your opponent led a commission on the Parkland shooting, and among its recommendations was to enable arming teachers as a form of school protection. What is your position on that? 

I was horrified. And then he lobbied the state legislature so that they would pass a law saying that every single school in the state of Florida has to have an armed individual within the school. And that is law as we speak. When we have an armed law enforcement officer in a school environment, it is minorities that are impacted greatly by having more arrests, and the school-to-jail pipeline becomes even more of a reality. I will hand pick the school resource officers, the deputies that will be assigned to the schools, to make sure that they have the right mindset. They will have to take the law enforcement hat off and provide services that have nothing to do with arresting our young men and women that are there. It’s mandated by the state that we have to have an officer, so this for me is the best option to comply with the law.

Some places around the country responded to the Black Lives Matter movement this summer by removing such school resource officers from schools. You are stressing it’s a state mandate, but would you want to see the state revisit that mandate and rethink their role?

Absolutely, I would definitely welcome that. 

I want to ask you about another law: Florida has a so-called Stand Your Ground statute, and Sheriff Gualtieri invoked it in not arresting Michael Drejka in 2018. Do you think that he made the right decision given state law, and do you think that law should remain in place at all or would you favor the state repealing it?

When you have a sheriff that uses a law to justify a murder of an individual, then obviously that law is not written properly. We don’t need that law. The way it’s being used is justifying murder by certain people. But even people that want “Stand Your Ground” thought that his decision not to arrest that individual was wrong, so it’s beyond the law. 

Sheriff Gualteri has also championed local cooperation with ICE. He helped design a new form of agreement for ICE to pay sheriffs for immigrants they detain and turn over. Separately, Gualtieri has joined ICE’s 287(g) program, which enables deputies to fulfill some of the capacities of federal immigration agents. If elected sheriff, would you maintain your office in either of these relationships?

Those contracts will immediately be ended. I will not have my deputies be agents of ICE. I will not have my agents be the agents of destroying families in our community. These types of agreements are hurting our community, are destroying the family, and it’s anti-American. I am going to advocate strengthening our families, keeping our community safe and eliminating this type of agreement that makes our deputies ICE agents. 

In 2018, Florida legislators passed a constitutional amendment that expanded the right to vote to most people who complete their felony sentence. Last year, state Republicans adopted a law to require repayment of court debt before people’s voting rights are restored. What is your reaction to the resulting situation? After all, the people affected won’t be able to vote in your own election.

Our state legislators, led by the majority Republicans, have betrayed the will of the people. I as a citizen voted to make sure that they’re able to have the rights restored. And for them to turn around and negate that is a betrayal of the will of the people, and I will personally make them accountable, the legislators, when I go to the ballot box on November the third.

If you’re elected sheriff, people detained in the jail for misdemeanors or pretrial will still retain the right to vote. What will you do to ensure that they can exercise their voting rights, and are you going to allow groups access to the jail to help register people or give them information about their rights? 

Absolutely. I am a member of the League of Women Voters, and I served as the vice president for the League of Women Voters in this county for several years. That’s my core value. If somebody is in a jail facility, and they have not been convicted, and it’s Election Day, they have full rights to be able to vote, and we will see whatever we need to do to ensure that they’re able to cast their vote.

Explore the Political Report’s coverage of other prosecutor and sheriff elections in Florida this year.