Hendry County Sheriff addresses use of force and accusations of racism


LABELLE — The City of LaBelle Local Planning Agency (LPA) and Regular City Commission Meeting was held on July 9. During the meeting, Hendry County Sheriff Steve Whidden explained that he had come to address the concerns about the Hendry County Sheriff’s Office Use of Force policy, specifically the use of choke holds. He also wanted to address the accusations of racism within the HCSO.

“Normally, I wouldn’t even dignify that with an answer, but I will say that’s simply not true. I think some people confuse enforcing the law with being racist and that’s very sad. But everyone has a right to an opinion whether it’s right or wrong,” he said. “There is a huge call nationwide into the George Floyd incident. One of the biggest calls is for better deescalation training, better cultural diversity training, better crisis intervention training for people with mental illness.” He went on, “I like to pride myself on the fact that I’m always staying on top of things, trying to stay ahead of the curve, before things become an issue.”

Whidden discussed the HCSO five-year plan that was presented to the BOCC in 2019. He explained one of the objectives outlined in the plan was for training to include improved social interaction as well as deescalation techniques. He reported that they had held deescalation training lessons in February 2020 that incorporated these objectives. He presented a second objective that required all members of the HCSO to be included in lessons on cultural and diversity sensitivity. The third objective related to all staff and sworn officers having ongoing crisis intervention training.

He then addressed the HSCO stance on use of choke holds. He explained that a choke hold is only an option used during a deadly force scenario. He explained that a choke hold was not to be used during a regular or non-violent arrest but can and will be used by an officer in situations where use of force is authorized.

Commissioner Julie Wilkins said she understood use of deadly force to be when an officer felt they were in danger and had no choice. Also, she clarified that a choke hold did not necessarily result in death. Whidden agreed that the policy stated that a choke hold, and/or other use of deadly force, was only to be used during life or death situations, in self-defense.

A member of the community asked, “I was told that deputies, when they go to training, they shoot to kill and empty their guns, no matter what the situation is, is that true?”

Whidden responded, “Absolutely false.” He explained that they are taught to shoot to as required to stop the threat.