NewsAmerica in Crisis


Treasure Coast talks race, policing 1 year after George Floyd's death

'Police brutality cannot be tolerated and should not be,' Vero Beach police chief says
Posted at 11:34 AM, May 25, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-25 19:03:35-04

FORT PIERCE, Fla. — May 25 is being called "A Day of Enlightenment" by George Floyd's family. They say one year ago a video clip opened the "world's eyes to the plight of Black Americans."

The nation witnessed last summer approximately 7,750 demonstrations, and the wave flooded Florida's shores where people voiced frustrations from police brutality to systemic racism and identity politics. But has the water receded?

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One year ago in Stuart at the Roosevelt Bridge people chanted "no justice, no peace" and held signs that read "don't kill us then ask for peace."

But today, the people and the sounds have cleared.

The city, known as the Sailfish Capital of the World, is packed with tourists, but everyone isn't talking fish.

Angelo Spagnola, Martin County resident
Angelo Spagnola speaks about the experience he had with an officer when he was a teenager.

"It's definitely not a Black or White issue. It's a police issue. It's a people issue," said Angelo Spagnola, a resident of Martin County.

Spagnola or "AyJay" is a local rapper who said he's had his own run-in with a "bad cop."

"They lied in their depositions, said that they identified themselves, which never happened. (The cop) said that I turned around and ran at him and egressed him, which didn't happen," Spagnola said. "I was just defending myself, which I said, it's my word against theirs. I lost."

Spagnola didn't pay the price with his life, but his price was time.

"I was 17-years-old and went to an adult prison for something that I probably shouldn't of. It's just everybody can be a victim if they let themselves be a victim," Spagnola said.

Last summer, Spagnola protested with the masses. He calls the motivation personal and socially responsible.

"It's them against you," he said.

Port St. Lucie

Assistant Police Chief Richard Del Toro with the Port St. Lucie Police Department sees it differently.

"Law enforcement, unfortunately, gets painted with a very broad brush. What they see happen in maybe Minnesota they think that's law enforcement in Port St. Lucie, and that's really not the case," he said.

And Del Toro wanted WPTV to see it. The department is one of a thousand that's internationally accredited, and one of 153 that's accredited with excellence.

Port St. Lucie Assistant Police Chief Richard Del Toro
Port St. Lucie Assistant Police Chief Richard Del Toro believes officers need more training.

"We need more training not less," Del Toro said.

He also said increasing use of force, tactical judgment and firearms training should result in more trust for all citizens they protect.

"The reform that I think needs to happen in law enforcement is more agencies becoming accredited," Del Toro said. "Because then you will have those policies in place. Those best practices."

Vero Beach

WPTV traveled to Indian River County looking for other signs of progress in policing. That's where we found Vero Beach Police Chief David Currey reflecting on his own viral moment kneeling with protesters last year.

"Police brutality cannot be tolerated and should not be," he said.

Currey said he was committed to his city’s concerns before the death of George Floyd, and he's committed today. He also wants to commend the men and women in uniform for doing what they took an oath to do.

Vero Beach Police Chief David Currey
Vero Beach Police Chief David Currey speaks about the need to end police brutality.

"There's millions of service calls, and there's a very small percentage of issues and concerns that we're talking about that takes place," Currey said.

As another accredited law enforcement agency, Currey said his department uses best practices to keep people safe but also places emphasis on engagement.

"Get out of your police cars, let your windows down and intermingle with your citizens," said Darrell Rivers, Vero Beach public information officer.

Fort Pierce

Both men call it a good lesson on policing, but as WPTV headed back south through Fort Pierce, we stumbled on our first visible sign that read, "Black lives, Blue lives, White lives, Justice."

We wanted to know what the people who pass the sign think about it.

Sign in Fort Pierce reads "Black lives, Blue lives, White lives, Justice" one year after George Floyd's death
A sign in Fort Pierce reads "Black lives, Blue lives, White lives, Justice."

"I think it's powerful. I think it's good showing everybody that we can all get along together," said Christopher Williams, a barber at Serenity Hair Salon. "It's showing everybody that as a group we're whole. Whether we're Black, White, green or yellow. It's just a whole. Everybody is together."

Those sentiments are echoed by Dennis Gelsomino who said he doesn't believe systemic racism exists but understands the motivations behind last summer's protests.

"I back the Blue 100 percent. I back the Black. I back the White. I back humans, OK. We all need to work together," Gelsomino said.

But is this sign enough?

Not according to Fort Pierce commissioner who's behind a new movement called "One Fort Pierce." The initiative was established this spring in hopes of tackling the elephant in many people's living room.

"Everyone has a right to voice their opinion and to peacefully assemble and petition that," said Curtis Johnson Jr., Fort Pierce District 1 commissioner. "And what I mean by petition your government is that people need to be engaged in the process."

Fort Pierce commissioner Curtis Johnson Jr.
Fort Pierce commissioner Curtis Johnson Jr. created the movement called "One Fort Pierce" to get more people involved in societal change.

The overarching goal of the movement is to link the people who live in the historically Black Lincoln Park community and those who live across the South Beach Bridge together.

"To ensure they are talking, that we're engaged and that we understand that we both want the same thing," he said.

Johnson even created a new seal. He said Fort Pierce is a diverse community that requires diverse participation moving forward.

"We can’t afford not to talk to each other," he said. "We can't afford not to participate in the system. And we can’t afford not to challenge what the status quo has been."

There are plenty of signs the wave of last summer that challenged the status quo hasn't receded.