Commissioner Reginald Sessions wanted much more but settled for a future bodycam ordinance discussion
FORT PIERCE – City Commissioner Reginald Sessions spent more than two hours June 15 bemoaning police brutality and systematic racism while publicly expressing his disdain for Police Chief Diane Hobley-Burney before finally settling for a future discussion on how to ensure police officers utilize their body cameras.
The lengthy discussion began amidst the backdrop of Black Lives Matter protests across the nation in response to the May 25 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Commissioner Sessions set the tone for his Black Lives Matter: Systematic Racism and Police Reformation presentation by slowly singing a Civil Rights-era anthem from 1964.
“It’s been a long time coming, but I know change gonna come, whoa, yes it is,” he sang over and over, accompanied by echoes from members of the audience as he called out the names of each recent victim of alleged police brutality. “We can no longer sit here and turn our backs as we have done in the past because right now there is a movement to address and rectify the previous injustices that have gone on for almost 400 years.”
Commissioner Sessions then proceeded to show images of recent Fort Pierce Black Lives Matter marches and one of Mr. Floyd prostrate on the ground with officer Derek Chauvin’s knee on his neck. He then recalled the June 12 shooting of Rayshard Brooks in a Wendy’s parking lot in Atlanta, which he compared to the 2016 killing of Demarcus Semers in Fort Pierce. Both were shot in the back as they fled from officers, with Brooks carrying a taser stolen from the pursuing officers and Semer armed only with a cell phone.
“Maybe you know some justification for shooting a man in the back, but I have yet to understand and realize that,” Commissioner Sessions said to his fellow commissioners as he described the protests he and an unnamed friend made that year after Mr. Semers death. “We came forward and I spoke out as I’m doing tonight, where I’m saying enough is enough. We marched and raised hell about that situation because we knew it was unjust.”
He then digressed from his presentation when he began reading from a letter written by a Tampa-area consultant at the time whom he says alleged that Chief Hobley-Burney both warned his friend [Fort Pierce activist Rick Reed] against mentioning her son’s legal issues and allegedly threatened to plant evidence on Commissioner Sessions to stop him from making waves about the incident. Although both officers involved in the Semers shooting were ultimately fired, one was reinstated at the conclusion of the investigation. Since that time, Commissioner Sessions has publicly berated the police chief during Commission meetings and expressed particular frustration that he was locked out of a press conference she held June 5 to announce her decision to fire two officers involved in the beating of a drunk citizen in custody at Lawnwood Regional Medical Center last February.
“I felt there was information there that I needed to know before it was disclosed to anyone, but I was denied the opportunity and locked out the door,” he fumed. “I should have been right there, as well as you all, doing that press conference because they take place with elected officials, and there’s a reason for that: It’s called transparency.”
More than once he turned to glare angrily at Chief Hobley-Burney during his presentation, this time accusing her of trying to separate the February incident from the current anti-police climate around the nation by emphasizing that the Lawnwood victim was white. The chief made that comment in response to a reporter asking her if she thought that incident was racially motivated. The victim was making racial slurs toward an African-American female officer in the same room.
“And this wasn’t racially motivated,” he said facing the chief. “Well guess what? A white man has the same rights as me – it doesn’t matter. Trying to dilute the situation because it was a white person. How dare you do that!”
As part of his presentation, Commissioner Sessions asked for an ordinance requiring officers to download the video daily from their body-worn cameras and for penalties if they turn their cameras off. He also listed four topics he wanted to address: the use of chokeholds by Fort Pierce Police; de-escalation training; a knock-first warrant execution policy; and the reorganization of the Police Advisory Board. He insisted the latter was needed due to the chief’s oversight of that committee.
“How in the world can we have an impartial board to make decisions about controversies between the Police Department and the citizens if the chief is there regulating the meetings?” he asked. “Whenever something goes on about her police officers, she can cut the meeting off right there … and it shouldn’t be that way.”
That request particularly concerned Commissioner Jeremiah Johnson, the first member of the Board to interrupt the presenting commissioner more than an hour into his presentation.
“So my [appointed] member has not said that to me,” he said, referring to Commissioner Sessions’ allegation that the chief dominated the Advisory Board meetings. “I respectfully disagree to some extent because [she’s] the matter expert – the testimony witness – the person that knows the law, that knows the ordinances, that knows state statute.”
After more than two hours into the discussion, Mayor Linda Hudson asked Commissioner Sessions if he was about to wind up his presentation.
“I’d just like to know where you’re going,” she said. “I’m kind of on an overload of information.”
Commissioner Sessions then put the ball in God’s court, insisting that lives were at stake.
“Where I’m going, I really don’t know, I’m letting the Lord lead,” he said. He’s going to determine that because I prayed about this matter before I got here, so I can’t answer that question. Do you have a problem with me proceeding?”
“I’d like for you to proceed, but it’s getting a little bit more like a speech instead of a presentation,” Mayor Hudson continued.
Commissioner Sessions continued another 20 more minutes or so before beginning his wrap-up.
“I’m here to try to orchestrate a direction to send our city manager to create a policy/ordinance to address what’s happening in our nation and on our globe,” he concluded. “That will be done so we can make sure we have the faith and trust of our police force so they can maintain the public safety and the general welfare of the citizens and to prevent police brutality.”
For her part, Mayor Hudson emphasized her confidence in current Police Department procedures and that her Advisory Board appointee had not registered any complaints or comments about the chief’s interactions with that committee.
“So, I’m not sure of the seriousness of the problem, but I’m willing to look and listen and learn,” she said.
Commissioner Sessions ultimately made a motion to only discuss the police body camera issues at the July 13 Conference Agenda, which was seconded by Commissioner Rufus Alexander. City Manager Nick Mimms asked him to reconsider an August Conference Agenda or separate workshop due to the city’s first budget discussion also planned July 13, but he refused. That motion passed 4-1, with Commissioner Johnson dissenting due to concern over not having ample time for both discussions.