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Lakesha Burton, veteran Jacksonville officer and past PAL head kicks off run for sheriff

Lakesha Burton is a 22-year veteran of the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office.
Credit: Florida Times-Union

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Resilience — that is what Sheriff's Office Assistant Chief Lakesha Burton says she has had since she was a child.

Now the 22-year department veteran says that resilience will help her as the first Black woman to run for sheriff in Jacksonville. She officially filed after an interview about her life, beliefs and plans if elected next year to succeed Sheriff Mike Williams.

Seated in a coffee shop within walking distance of the Zone 2 substation that the 46-year-old administrator has run for a year, Burton is animated as she speaks of how the sexual abuse of her teen years, then her turnaround in high school that ultimately led her to become a police officer under then-Sheriff Nat Glover.

Glover, the city's first modern-day Black sheriff, was making community-oriented policing the "fabric of everything" she learned as an officer, she said. Now she said she has many reasons why she is running, but one is to give what she has learned in life and as an officer back to her community.

"I think the next person that leads this agency should be someone who is deeply connected in the community and really has the leadership ability to bridge the gap," Burton said. "This is something I have been passionate about during my entire career. I am always the type of person who tries to fit in, step up where I can or where I can be most effective. ... I understand trauma. I lived with the trauma every day of my life with what happened to me when I was young." 

Married in 2008 to Greg Burton, they live in Mandarin and have five children together ranging in age from 11 to 32.

In a 2015 Times-Union article about her appointment as head of Jacksonville's Police Athletic League, she related how she was a sexually abused 15-year-old who deliberately got pregnant to stop her stepfather from raping her. She gave birth to a son, remembering that the doctor told her he was sure "I'll see you again next year at the same time."

Her stepfather ended up in jail as she skipped classes at Wolfson High School and was suspended for fighting and cursing teachers. She said she was so depressed and angry that she used drugs and even contemplated suicide, until she realized that she could change her life. She improved in class as she worked with counselors at school and PAL. Captain of the school's basketball team and Wolfson's athlete of year, she was taken by a coach to a church revival and recommended for a scholarship to Lake County Community College.

Burton ultimately decided to be a police officer, which surprised some of her friends, and pursued a criminal justice career at the University of Central Florida after earning her associate's degree at Lake County. And in 1999, through the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office minority sponsorship program, the young woman known then as Lakesha Anderson became a police officer.

Glover helped her when she applied to another agency that wouldn't hire her because she had been arrested, she said.

"All the sheriffs have been instrumental in my career and my life," Burton said. "... Sheriff Glover got on the phone and said, come home, I will give you an opportunity. Any time someone gives me an opportunity, I jump in head first."

Her education didn't end with employment, earning a master's degree in criminology from Florida Metropolitan University in 2004. The Sheriff's Office gave her its Six Pillars of Character Award for her traits of trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship. She was promoted to lieutenant in 2013, only the second Black police officer selected for that rank.

Having grown up with and survived abuse and other problems, she said she has been able to work with crime victims by knowing intimately what they are going through. It also earns trust as she became a well-rounded officer.

"Every single thing that has happened to me in the past, I have always used for good. Every transgression, I have been able to successfully connect with people my entire life," Burton said. "It makes a difference when you are on a call and someone has experienced something that you had, and they see you. It gives them hope. It gives them the ability to speak up. And it also shows that just because this happened to you, it doesn't have to define your future."

And her successes as a young woman in academics and athletics despite problems also helped her when then-Sheriff John Rutherford appointed her to head the PAL, the first woman to direct it.

"It was the very entity that really saved my life," Burton said. "That is why I am very passionate about youth; I am really passionate about intervention because it works. It worked for me."

A lifelong Democrat, she said she believes she will have the support of the rank and file officers. She also looks to Williams, who appointed her to lead the Arlington police sub-sector in a "male-dominated profession."

Burton said she wants to hear what people consider the biggest issues in Jacksonville, like high crime rates and racial tension. She saw the latter firsthand as she worked with officers in late May as protesters called for law enforcement reforms in response to multiple police-involved shootings.

That's when she said she realized that she was "Black and Blue" — a Black woman wearing a blue police uniform, standing with her colleagues who want to protect the civil liberties of people as protesters yelled and threw things at her.

"It was so painful to watch for me as a Black woman raising three sons in the community," she said. "... People who did not understand what I am saying, I was, hey, let's talk about it. I will never push away from my personal experiences."

Saying it is very early in the race, Burton is the only Sheriff's Office candidate filed for the spring 2023 city elections. She knows she is making history as a Black woman running for sheriff but hasn't thought much about it. She said she just feels like the city's residents "deserve options."

"We need a diverse group of leaders who feel they are capable and able to move our agency and our city forward to be bold, courageous and step up," she said. "Allow the voters of Jacksonville to have options, and the people will choose. It is my prayer that people see past parties, gender and race and really look at the hearts of the leaders who are running."

You can read more from our partners at the Florida Times-Union.

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