Can Lakesha Burton seal the deal? MAYBE!
Words by Shelton Hull
With more than 3,000 civilians, corrections officers and sworn officers, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office is one of the largest law enforcement organizations in the South, and Lakesha Burton knows the agency, backward and forward. “It’s a massive organization,” the retired JSO assistant chief/zone commander and current candidate for sheriff and one she is ready, willing and able to take on.
The run-off to the special election takes place Nov. 8. It is one of the most contentious contests in a midterm election cycle that is full of them. Burton faces T.K. Waters, a veteran homicide investigator who essentially cruised into the runoff in the wake of Democratic infighting. Had all four Dems simply circled the wagons around Burton, the race would have probably ended during the Aug. 23 primary. Instead, it’s now a toss-up, and anything close falls to the Republicans, by default. The last thing she needs is a close election, and she’s not playing for the tie. She’s taking no chances at all.
Burton sat down with us at Folio HQ last month for a wide-ranging discussion about the issues at stake in this, the most important sheriff’s race in a generation. (You can view the extended interview online.)
The first question was obvious: Why is she even doing this? Ambitions aside, it’s a long, hard road to the top, and if money or clout were her main goals, there are certainly easier, safer, far less stressful ways to go about it.
“Actually, that’s been the No. 1 question I’ve gotten,” she said, shortly before our talk was interrupted by the sound of Amber Alerts coming into everyone’s cell phones at once. “I can tell you: I love Jacksonville. I was raised here. My children went to public school [here], and I am concerned about the safety of citizens in our city, and I think I have the skill set to address it.”
Burton’s husband, Greg, has served as the police chief of the Duval County School Police Department since 2021, and with school safety being in the forefront, she feels concerns similar to the spouses of teachers and the parents of students. She’s not, however, afraid. “Actually, there is no fear. My husband and I have been married a long time. He did 26 years with [JSO], so we are used to being in this profession together,” she said. “So, in regards to all the things happening in the schools, [JSO] has excellent relations with the [Duval County School] police department, but we are partners to address anything that might transpire.”
When it comes to threats like active shooters, we know police protocols vary wildly around the country, and we have all seen the ultimate in horror stories play out in places of learning like Virginia Tech, Columbine, Sandy Hook, Parkland and, most recently, Uvalde. On this matter, Burton reiterates a point that all the candidates and their predecessors are in agreement on: JSO will not stand down against an active shooter, and officers will never run from danger.
“What I can tell you is that we are prepared, God forbid, for any active shooter situation,” Burton said. “Whether that’s a school, a movie theater or the mall, we are prepared to go in and eliminate the threat.”
Burton is one of many prominent examples of women, Black women, in particular, boosting their representation within law enforcement around the country. “Women of color [are] being deliberate about having a seat at the table,” Burton said about leaders like former Orlando police chief Val Demings who is currently closing the gap in her run for Marco Rubio’s U.S. Senate seat. Former Tampa police chief Jane (my favorite politician in America, by the way) now serves as that city’s mayor, and, closer to home, former JSO director of patrol and enforcement Michelle Cook went on to become chief of police for the City of Atlantic Beach and is currently Clay County sheriff.
“Research says that women in law enforcement have the ability to connect. Maybe it’s because we’re mothers. We’re disciplinarians, and we’re nurturers. There’s roughly about 12% of sworn officers who are women, and only about 3% of leadership. The numbers are smaller than we want, but there’s a lot of room to grow.”
Originally, the election for sheriff was scheduled for March 14, 2023, concomitant with the broader slate of local elections that always take place in odd-numbered years. All that changed in June 2022 when former sheriff Mike Williams abruptly resigned in the wake of controversy over his permanent residence, the details of which have been documented extensively here, there and elsewhere. Less obvious, however, was the extreme complication it forced onto the candidates for sheriff, all of whom had been campaigning for months based on a timeline that was suddenly truncated.
Campaigns tend to accelerate as they get closer to Election Day, so while many local candidates are fundraising and maybe doing some basic advertising, the serious action doesn’t really begin until after the holidays. Not only did the sheriff’s candidates have to move all their plans up seven months, but the candidate who wins the election must then turn around and run again for the same position they were just elected to four months prior. (Rumor has it Ken Jefferson might seize the moment to make his fourth and final run for sheriff in March but no confirmation of that.)
Burton was first to declare for sheriff, way back in April 2021, and she was the only game in town for quite a while, before the presence of a lone woman out front drew the usual wave of interchangeable men to run interference. Sure, there was more to it than that, but not to the casual observer. And with voter turnout unlikely to break 30% next month, their opinion is the only one that really matters. Most of the “police reform now” crowd will stay home, and the election will presumably reflect the internal biases of the department itself.
“I jumped in first because I like to lead from the front,” she said. Burton knows all about blazing trails, as she is the first Black woman to run for sheriff in Jacksonville, not to mention being only the fourth to rank as assistant chief in the agency’s 200-year history. She was also the first woman to serve as executive director of Jacksonville’s Police Athletic League (PAL), which might be the most compelling attribute of all, given the organization’s essential role in the community. The Black community, in particular, is notoriously sketchy about the police, and that has given the criminal element virtual carte blanche to do whatever they want here, for the past 10 to 20 years.
“It’s not entirely our fault, but we have to take responsibility,” she said. “It’s no secret: We have a violent crime problem in our city, and it’s been going on for decades.”
No police chief or sheriff in America has solved this aspect of the problem, but Burton is keen to try. It helps that she’s pushing for full transparency of JSO’s budget process. And while she’s not on board with the quagmire that a civilian review board might be here, she proposes to have the FDLE investigate all officer-involved shootings .
Burton joined the force in the late 1990s, serving first under Nat Glover. “When I graduated college, I applied with a different agency that didn’t hire me, but Nat Glover did,” she recalled. “He allowed me to fulfill my lifelong dream of becoming a police officer.” Glover, who held the position from 1995 to 2003, was the city’s first Black sheriff. We will surely have our second one very soon, in just a matter of days.
As for who that will be, well, that’s entirely up to you.
Vote by mail is currently underway with early voting beginning Oct. 24 at 20 locations throughout the city. Polls will be open 7 a.m.–7 p.m. through Sunday, Nov. 6. Election Day is Tuesday, November 8.
Watch interview here.