In March 2016, Robert Dentmond, 16, was shot and killed by nine police officers. His death is a reminder of Gainesville’s complicated past with race.  

Rubin Johnson, 40, is a resident of Majestic Oaks, an apartment complex in southwest Gainesville. Photos by Alexa Padron.

On March 20, 2016, hours before his death, 16-year-old Robert Dentmond was texting his girlfriend.

“I’m finna have the police shoot me,” he wrote. “I just called them and told them I have a gun.”

When the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office arrived at Majestic Oaks, an apartment complex on Southwest 24th Ave., they found Dentmond in the parking lot. He held what appeared to be an MR-15, the same type of gun carried by the responding deputies and police officers. Even though Dentmond told 911 he was carrying an assault rifle, no officer who arrived on the scene was sufficiently equipped to protect themselves if Dentmond fired.

The ranking officer on the scene attempted to communicate with Dentmond, ordering him to put his weapon down. Twenty minutes later, Dentmond complied and placed his rifle on the ground. He did not comply with the request to leave the weapon and walk toward the officers.

Eventually, Dentmond picked the rifle back up. By this time, four officers from the Gainesville Police Department and one police dog had joined the five officers from ACSO.

The officer warned Dentmond that if he did not put the weapon back on the ground, he would be hurt. He did not comply. Dentmond was ordered to place his weapon on the ground or he would be shot. Dentmond did not comply; he was not shot.

Then, carrying his rifle, Dentmond started to move toward the apartment building where he and his sister were living.

The officers gave Dentmond a final warning: if he moved one more step toward the building, they would shoot. Dentmond moved; he was shot.

It wasn’t until later, after Dentmond was dead, that the officers learned his firearm was a replica. The shooting sparked outrage from the Gainesville community.

“The [ACSO] could’ve handled it in a better way,” said Robbin Stephens, who has lived at Majestic Oaks for 10 years. “His sister was standing by J Building … maybe if she was able to talk to him, he might still be here.”

Since she was elected sheriff office in 2006, Sadie Darnell has attempted to implement community-oriented policing, or COPS, in Alachua County. Rather than the traditional style of policing, where officers react to 911 calls while on patrol, community-oriented policing aims to prevent crime by building relationships in the community. Under COPS, officers still patrol, but they stay in the same area on a permanent basis and work with citizens to identify and solve their community’s problems.

But Alachua County’s deeply sown racial divisions have impeded COPS’s implementation. On a national level, COPS was implemented during the Clinton administration and ultimately became entangled with the broken windows theory — the philosophy that if you can police social behaviors like vandalism or public drinking, it will prevent more serious crimes. This leads to increased patrolling in areas that, like southwest Gainesville, appear destitute.

“In terms of looking at the history of Gainesville, we have to remember that Alachua County is founded based on the history of the control and domination of people,” Nunn said.

“Come through this area, then go to Haile Plantation,” said Jonathan Simmons, a Majestic Oaks resident. “There’s no police out there. Not one. You come out here, you gonna see a car upfront. There are just as many crimes going on out [at Haile] as out here. But ya’ll don’t want to tell no one about it.”

Majestic Oaks goes by many names — in the paper, you may see it referred to as the “SWAG areas,” for the SW Advocacy Group, a local group that works to address problems the area faces. You might also see it called “The Mike Zone,” the designation ACSO uses when patrolling the area.

ACSO divides the county into into three districts, which are in turn divided into zones. Each zone in the county is assigned the same number of patrolling deputies; the smaller the zone, the more police attention its residents will receive. The Mike Zone is the smallest of the sheriff’s office zones.

Patrick Miller (left) describes the community at Majestic Oaks while Rico Williams (right) listens.

Patrolling as a form of policing is rooted not in addressing crime, but in addressing behavior, historically that of runaway slaves. The plantation system was based on an economy of free labor; runaway slaves posed a problem.

“During the period of slavery you had the patrol system,” said Patricia Nunn, a professor of African American studies at the University of Florida. “So what did that mean? That meant that [if] there was somebody who ran away, if there was somebody who was acting up, you had this group that had to somehow capture them, punish them and basically return that ‘property’ back to the owner.”

In the mid-1800s, Florida, and Alachua County in particular, was a haven for free blacks and Native Americans, the excess land providing them an escape from slavery. Their freedom was unacceptable in antebellum America. In response, Florida government passed the Armed Occupation Act in 1842, which required landowners moving to the area to own a weapon. Alachua County went from being a safe place for free black people to the seventh largest slave-owning county in the state of Florida.

“In terms of looking at the history of Gainesville, we have to remember that Alachua County is founded based on the history of the control and domination of people,” Nunn said.

After the Thirteenth Amendment made slavery illegal, southern states began to pass black codes, which continued to police black people’s behavior.

One night in 1888, Herman Murray went to visit his girlfriend. With permission, he borrowed a horse from his employer, a merchant named H. Pinkoson. But when Murray stayed out too late, Pinkoson assumed he had stolen the horse and assembled a search party to hunt him. When Murray learned of the search from a friend, he fled. But the party caught up with him and sentenced him to three years at a prison work camp.

At the time, known members of the Ku Klux Klan, like Sheriff Lewis Fennell, were put in charge of municipal offices. If a crime was committed against a black person, they often chose not to enforce the law. Oftentimes, they participated.

“When we talk about issues in 2017, about driving while black, standing while black, shopping while black, thinking while black, dancing while black, it’s not totally disconnected from the desire or the resentment that certain people had towards black people during Reconstruction,” Nunn said.

Dentmond’s death is a continuation of Alachua County’s racial hostilities. Nunn references Kofi Adu-Brempong, a 35-year-old UF graduate student from Ghana. His colleagues said that the doctoral candidate, who had polio as a child and needed a cane to walk, was suffering from mental illness. But after he barricaded himself in his apartment, police broke down his door and shot him in the head, leaving him in critical condition. Police arrested Abu-Brempong and claimed he threatened them with a knife and pipe but declined to provide details. An Alachua County judge found the police had no probable cause to arrest him.

Two teens box as neighbors watch. Boxing is a typical pastime for residents of Majestic Oaks. 

The residents at Majestic Oaks feel like police officers still assume the worst of them today.

“It’s a stereotype,” Simmons said. “We dress a certain way, we gotta be doing something. If we just talking, hanging out, we gotta be selling drugs.”

The daily routines at Majestic Oaks include playing card games, drinking a beer over neighborly conversations and watching a mass of laughing kids run around the playground. Sometimes, a group of guys will gather for a boxing tournament.

But the police, for all their efforts to implement community policing, still don’t understand this.

“If you break the law, you have to pay the consequences,” said Lieutenant Brandon Kutner, a Public Information Officer at the ACSO. “But when you think about it, we are in the business of correcting criminal behavior. Now whether we do that through education, whether we do that through diversion, or whether we do that through some other process, that’s our prerogative. We can choose whichever way to do that.”

The State Attorney’s Office found that ACSO was justified in how it resolved Dentmond’s shooting. But Nunn said people aren’t looking for an explanation, they’re looking for an apology.

“You can’t tell me with all of the technology we have, all of the knowledge we have, all of the special lights, counselors and therapists, hostage negotiators, that that’s the best you can do? Have 9 people blast this child away?” she said.

The night he died, Dentmond told his girlfriend he wouldn’t be alive the next day.

“Maybe I’ll be underground by tomorrow…don’t believe me, I’ll show you,” he texted her.

Though Dentmond’s intent was to commit suicide by police that night, Nunn said his call was really one for help. But the police didn’t recognize that when they showed up to Majestic Oaks. They assumed the worst of Dentmond and acted accordingly.  

“It’s different ‘cause [the police] feel like this is the swamp,” Simmons said. “They feel like we don’t care. Like we don’t matter.” •

Donovan Bailey contributed to this report.