Florida Was A Very Different State In 1893, When Its 45 Sheriffs Formed The Florida Sheriffs Association

Image: Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Fallen Heroes Memorial. Courtesy of WalterDSC/Flickr.

By Robert Sanchez

This year marks the 125th anniversary of the founding of the Florida Sheriffs Association (FSA). If you were to tell a resident of today’s Florida that the state was very different back then, you’d almost certainly get the following reaction: “Well, duh!”

Even so, comparing Florida then and now can supply a bit of context illustrating how far Florida law enforcement has progressed since 1893. At that time the most recent U.S. Census (1890) had put the state’s total population at a mere 391.422, with most Floridians clustered in North Florida.

To the south lay a vast mosquito-infested area that was home to more alligators than humans. Dade County, for instance, then encompassed 5,809 square miles – an area that now includes Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, and Martin counties.

In land area the Dade County of 1893 was larger than the combined areas of Rhode Island (1,221 square miles) and Delaware (1,981), and it was even larger than Massachusetts (5,543 square miles).

And how many people did the 1890 Census find in that vast area? 861. Mind you, that’s not a typo. The total population in that 5,809 square-mile area was 861, albeit with an asterisk: There’s no telling how many indigenous people who were then living in the Everglades were missed by that Census. By the way, in 2017 that same 5,809 square-mile area’s population totaled 6,327,588.

At any rate, when Florida’s sheriffs got together in 1893 to organize the FSA, they were the chief providers of law enforcement in a state that was partially settled and relatively civilized but also partially a wild frontier, much like the American West where the tragic Battle of Wounded Knee had been fought at the end of December 1892.

Moreover, Florida’s sheriffs were also tasked with providing law enforcement in a state that was undergoing rapid social changes that historians would later see as regression in the aftermath if the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Granted, 1893 was 28 years after the end of the Civil War, a conflict in which Florida was only marginally involved compared to most other states of the Confederacy. However, 1893 was a mere 16 years after the end of the Reconstruction era, a period of widespread poverty, corruption, violence, and general lawlessness in Florida.

The disturbing conditions that had prevailed in much of the state during and after the Civil War and Reconstruction undoubtedly were on the minds of many of the state’s leaders and citizens in 1885, when they adopted a new Florida Constitution that added to the challenges faced by the state’s sheriffs and other law enforcement agencies.

This new Constitution, which remained in force until 1968, included provisions that essentially tasked law enforcement with enforcing a form of apartheid. Consider Article XII, Section 12 (“White and colored children shall not be taught in the same school…) or Article XVI, Section 24 (“All marriage between a white person and a negro, or between a white person and a person of negro descent to the fourth generation, inclusive, are [sic] hereby forever prohibited.”) In many counties, similar ordinances affected everything from private businesses to public parks, beaches, and water fountains.

The only remaining relic of that Jim Crow document is the so-called Blaine Amendment, which lives on in the current Constitution. Adopted during 1885’s previous wave anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic bigotry and preserved in 1968 at the behest of the teachers unions and other similar groups, it forbade providing public funds, directly or indirectly, to any religious organization, no matter how benign the purpose.

When the FSA was organized in 1893, all of the sheriffs in Florida’s then-45 counties were white males and Democrats – not surprising in a one-party state under Jim Crow laws. In the Presidential election of 1892, for instance, Democrat Grover Cleveland won 84.8 percent of the votes while African Americans were strongly discouraged from voting, to say the least.

Nowadays the ranks of Florida’s sheriffs are somewhat more diverse – especially politically. Miami-Dade County does not have an elected sheriff, instead opting for an appointed “Director” of public safety. Jefferson County also has an appointed sheriff at this time as Alfred Kenneth “Mac” McNeill Jr. was recently named to succeed the late Sheriff David C. Hobbs, who died in office.

At last count the elected sheriffs in Florida’s other 65 counties included 43 Republicans and 17 Democrats. There are six sheriffs in counties where the candidates run with no party affiliation. Florida now has one female sheriff and four African American sheriffs, including one of the Republicans. The ranks of the deputies serving under these sheriffs are also far more diverse than in past with respect to gender, race, and ethnicity.

This is a welcome change from the days as recent as the 1940s and ’50s, when racist sheriffs such as Lake County’s notorious Willis McCall not only tolerated the presence of Ku Klux Klansmen in his agency, but he also took part in framing “the Groveland Boys” for a rape they did not commit.

Just as Florida’s sheriffs’ history parallels the ups and downs of Florida’s history and social climate, there is also much for the sheriffs to be proud of when they gather for on Amelia Island Feb. 4-7 for their annual Winter Conference. For one thing, Florida’s crime rate is the lowest in 46 years. For another, consider some of the following milestones culled from a much longer list on the FSA website:

  • 1955 – FSA created the Florida Sheriffs’ Bureau, forerunner to what is known today as the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
  • 1957 – FSA founded the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches, whose mission is to prevent delinquency and develop strong, lawful, resilient and productive citizens who will make a positive contribution to our communities for years to come.
  • 1963 – FSA founded the Florida Law Enforcement Academy, the first statewide training center for city, county and state law-enforcement officers.
  • 1998 – FSA helped to create the Florida Corrections Accreditation Commission and has been a leader in developing “minimum standards” for law enforcement and corrections in the state and nation.
  • 2002 – FSA dedicated the Florida Sheriffs Law Enforcement Memorial on the grounds of the FSA headquarters in Tallahassee. The names of every Florida deputy killed in the line of duty are inscribed on the large granite wall at the center of the memorial. Each spring, a service is held at the memorial to honor those who lost their lives the previous year.
  • 2017 – A bronze K-9 sculpture was added to the FSA Memorial to honor and memorialize all the brave K-9s killed in the line of duty. Over the years, many K-9s have been killed or injured in the line of duty, and this stunning sculpture pays tribute to them in the same inspiring fashion that the rest of the memorial honors their human counterparts.

Inscribed on the granite wall of the aforementioned memorial for fallen officers there are now 365 names. It’s a reminder that even though much has changed since the FSA was founded in 1893, the sheriffs, deputies, and other individuals serving in law enforcement still face risks every day.