BROOKSVILLE — Johnny Driscoll was given renewed hope when he chose to push forward after a sketchy past. The Brooksville resident now walks a straight path while trying to pay it forward by helping his community. So, when he heard protesters were looking at Brooksville to raise their collective voices against racism, Driscoll was prepared to make sure demonstrations ended peacefully.

He wasn’t alone. A Facebook group, Defend Hernando County, attracted thousands of members in just days as word of the protest on June 5 spread. Driscoll doesn’t believe in violence, but he does believe in preparation to avoid potential chaos. He, along with the members of the group, hoped for a peaceful outcome. But they also made their intentions clear that they weren’t going to allow these demonstrations to get out of hand, such as some of those in Tampa.

The protest played out with few issues, thanks to a collaborated effort by vigilant residents and a solid law enforcement presence by the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office. Days leading up to the event saw increased police activity at and near the courthouse. And members of the group posted regularly what they were witnessing or heard to avoid potential violence.

The day of the protest saw crowds gathered in front of the courthouse holding signs and speaking against racial oppression. Much of the tension had been fueled by the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota, leading to nationwide protests.

Except for some agitation in the crowd that tried to spark aggression, the event remained relatively peaceful. Sheriff’s deputies did take one person into custody.

Building relationships

Sheriff Al Nienhuis said preparations for a peaceful protest didn’t just happen the week of the incident. In fact, building strong race relations in the county has been a priority, and ongoing, for years.

Successful outcomes happen because the Sheriff’s Office is involved in all aspects of the community, not just minorities, he said. 

“The public is very supportive of us,” he said. “We have built excellent relationships over time.”

Nienhuis explained that each deputy in Hernando County is carefully chosen. Only 100 applicants are accepted each year out of 2,000 who apply. Background checks are extensive.

HCSO maintains strict ongoing training and policies to ensure deputies are providing the most effective interactions in the community. They are encouraged to speak up if they see something. And if a deputy isn’t treating people right on or off the job, they must be let go, he said.

“The organization has to be held accountable,” he added.

Situations that escalate, nationally or even globally, provide opportunities to refine local practices. The case of George Floyd was no different. HCSO looked at its own policies with respect to police aggression and brutality. In fact, chokeholds have never been authorized by the HCSO.

The Minnesota incident also heightened the focus on reminding deputies to be vigilant, cautious and extremely careful. Nienhuis called it “relaxed readiness,” and stressed the fact that all law enforcement must carefully balance it while on the job.

“You can’t tell good people from bad,” he said. “It takes enormous strength to treat people right and be ready to protect against ambush.”

Nienhuis said law enforcement is a difficult job and the public must remember that deputies put themselves in the line of fire on every shift. 

“They really have to walk a fine line,” he said adding that deputies are human and under tremendous pressure, even during a routine traffic stop. 

“We don’t know what we are running into unless we know you personally,” he said. “Be patient. We recruit from the human race.”

Peaceful protests

The day of the protest had the community on edge yet it played out with few mishaps. Nienhuis described an interaction with a resident before the protest. He and another deputy were walking through Hernando Park where a separate demonstration was forming. The pair wanted to let everyone know they were onsite and ready should things get out of hand.

They came upon a minority family with a child in a wheelchair. The mother removed her mask and thanked them, Neinhuis said. 

“I am so thankful we don’t have those issues here,” he paraphrased the mother’s words, referring to tensions across the U.S.

It was very moving, he said, and the ultimate litmus test. 

“We don’t make everyone happy. But a vast majority do like us,” he said.

Driscoll took photos during the protest, documenting what ended up being a peaceful gathering.

“I wanted protection for my family,” he said. “It’s what everyone wanted. “It’s logical to want to defend our county.”