Despite a lauded policy announced last fall that outlined steps the state would take to hasten the release of body-worn camera footage following police shootings, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office has failed to follow through in most cases since then.

The Sheriff’s Office now says the promise to complete assessments of the footage and approve its release within weeks of shootings was one only the Jacksonville State Attorney’s Office had made — and that the Sheriff’s Office still has no exact deadline to meet.

Even after prosecutors tell the Sheriff’s Office it can release the videos, the Sheriff’s Office waits before doing so.

The public has received video in only two of the 10 Jacksonville police shootings since the September policy, and only one within 30 days as originally guaranteed.

The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office police shootings database. [Screenshot]

In five of those 10 shootings, the Sheriff’s Office has yet to make a decision regarding the release of the body cams, instead marking them as “pending” on their online “officer-involved shooting” database.

Fifteen more police shootings from before the policy was announced stretching back as early as June 2019 are also still marked as pending. 

“I’ve reviewed these statistics regarding the release of bodycam footage of police-involved shootings, and I must tell you that I am, in fact, appalled,” said Ben Frazier, president of the Northside Coalition, who was involved in discussions leading up to the new policy. 

State Attorney Melissa Nelson received praise last September when she announced the updated protocol, which she said would lead to faster disclosures of bodycam videos of police shootings. The announcement came after protests from community groups demanding increased transparency and quicker turnarounds from the agencies in custody of the recordings. 

Under the new policy, state prosecutors get the footage within 48 hours of the shooting, and within 30 days conduct a review to determine whether releasing it would interfere with investigations. If given the thumbs-up, Nelson said, the Sheriff’s Office was supposed to immediately then turn the footage over to the public.

Change in tone

At the time, when Nelson faced reporters’ questions about what would happen if the Sheriff’s Office didn’t release the footage, she said that “the sheriff has committed that he is going to make this record public upon our notification as to whether we have an objection.”

Sheriff Mike Williams also struck a different tone back then, telling News4Jax his office would release footage after getting prosecutors’ approval. “We are in total agreement of the policy,” he said at the time.

Before, the State Attorney’s Office originally held off on an officer’s bodycam video release until all of its investigation into the shooting had ended. Then everything in its file, including footage, became public. Those investigations took many months, or years in some cases, during which time the public and families of victims remained in the dark, as was the case in the killing of 22-year-old Jamee Johnson by Officer Josue Garriga during a traffic stop in December 2019.

Frazier called Nelson’s September announcement “a big step in the right direction,” The Florida Times-Union reported at the time.

However, the new policy has failed to produce the change advocates hoped — and demanded — to see. 

The Sheriff’s Office has released videos from two of six police shootings tracked by the department since the beginning of 2021. The office posted footage from the March 30 shooting of Michael Leon Hughes less than a month afterward. Bodycam video from the Feb. 21 shooting of Daniel Neal was released around four months after the incident. Three others, including a shooting from early March and two from May, are still pending.

Footage in 10 of 2020’s 16 police shootings are still pending; the Sheriff’s Office determined in another five from that year that there is no video available to release. Only two police shootings from last year have seen any bodycam video released to the public: the shooting of John Robert Ritter on Feb. 22, 2020, and the killing of Axel Perez on July 4, 2020. But both videos were only released in June of 2021, nine months following the announcement of the new policy.

The Sheriff’s Office still has not made a determination on bodycam footage in six of 11 shootings from 2019 — bringing the total pending the agency’s decision to 21.

Neither the State Attorney’s Office nor the Sheriff’s Office explained the delay.

Prosecutors redirect questions to JSO  

In an email to The Tributary last Tuesday, State Attorney’s Office spokesman David Chapman said prosecutors had successfully received, assessed and made a determination on all bodycam footage of police shootings since September within the 30-day review period. 

“Our office notifies the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office when it is determined the release of the body-worn camera footage will not adversely impact our investigation — per our policy, this happens within 30 days, but to date we have done so sooner,” Chapman wrote.

Chapman also said the prosecutors office only counts eight police shootings since Sept. 1 of last year, while the Sheriff’s Office counts 10 on its online database.

The Sheriff’s Office online database includes police shootings even if no one got hit by a bullet, while the State Attorney’s Office policy only covers shootings where an officer actually shot someone.

The Sheriff’s Office database, however, can be misleading on that front. For example, it lists Luis Alberto Ceballos Rodriguez as the sole victim of a March 8 police shooting, and it notes he wasn’t actually hit by a bullet. However, three people were shot at by police and one, Andre Williams, was hit and taken to the hospital, according to his arrest report.

The State Attorney’s Office said that it has advised the Sheriff’s Office on the ability to release footage within eight days, on average.

“If there is/was a delay in the release of BWC by JSO that question would need to be directed to them,” wrote Cindy Cribbs, executive assistant to the state attorney, in another email obtained by The Tributary. “At this time the policy seems to be working as it was intended.”

Infinite delays are ‘legally dubious’

Meanwhile, the Sheriff’s Office said that recordings would be made public only when both agencies had reviewed and made a determination, something the office had apparently yet to accomplish in most shootings.

However, according to the office, the 30-day deadline to do so set forth last fall applies only to the state attorney, contradicting what Nelson had assured the community in September.

“There are no set parameters as to when the BWC footage is/may be released. Once deemed as not ‘active criminal’ by both the State Attorney’s Office and JSO, the video becomes available for release,” wrote Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Christian Hancock last Tuesday.

Frank LoMonte, director of the University of Florida Brechner Center for Freedom of Information, compared the given explanation to a game of hot potato. 

LoMonte voiced concern over the agencies “playing the keep-away game, where they’re throwing the hot potato back and forth and saying, ‘I don’t have it. He has it.’ Public records laws are not supposed to be gamed in that way.”

And these indefinite delays, which LoMonte said are legally dubious, are also not in the department’s best interests.

“If you set a goal, you better be prepared to beat it. Thirty days is a pretty unambitious goal,” LoMonte said. “That’s how you build confidence: you under-promise and over-deliver. … If you withhold video for weeks and months, that is going to feed into the community’s skepticism.”

The State Attorney’s Office argued that ultimately, the “Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office remains the custodian of the footage to release at their discretion,” even though the State Attorney’s Office has copies of the footage and could release it on its own, as it did before the new policy went into effect.

This was not the agreement Frazier with the Northside Coalition believed he made with Nelson, Sheriff Williams and Mayor Lenny Curry back in September. Now, he said, he sees the “devil is in the details,” the wording of the new policy and the continued “pending” status of bodycam release approvals allowing the Sheriff’s Office to evade its responsibilities.

“The state attorney appears to be following through on the commitment to approve release of the footage after its investigations. However, it appears that the hold-up is at the Sheriff’s Office,” Frazier said. 

“This to me is a direct violation of the agreement that the sheriff made when he sat down and talked with the NAACP, the Northside Coalition and the Jacksonville Community Action Committee last year. He said that he would follow through on that commitment, and this review and evaluation clearly indicates that he is not living up to his word.”

When asked about Frazier’s comments, the Sheriff’s Office did not respond. Sheriff Williams’ second and final term runs through June 2023.

Emily Wilder

Contact Emily Wilder at emily.wilder@yahoo.com.

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