Marsy’s Law was supposed to help victims. In Jacksonville, it shields police officers.

Last week, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office scrubbed police-shooting videos from its transparency website.

— By Uriel J. García

In late May, three Jacksonville police officers and a state agent shot and killed a 37-year-old man wanted on a warrant. More than two weeks earlier, two Jacksonville officers shot a 29-year-old man also wanted in connection to a robbery. 

Police released the names and ages of those injured and killed, and police announced that those men had fired first. Yet Jacksonville police never released the names of the officers, leaving the public in the dark about which officers fired their weapons.

Earlier this year, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office started withholding the names of police officers who have shot people after January 2019, scrubbing any previous mention of officers’ names from the office’s documents.

The office also began removing bodycam videos of past police shootings from their transparency website last week. The Sheriff’s Office said Tuesday that it doesn’t have a timeline for how long it will take to review and re-post those videos.

The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office has posted video from only one shooting, while the office now says 23 other shooting videos are “pending” further redaction. Those pending cases stretch as far back as three years.

Of the 100 times Jacksonville officers have shot at a person since July 2015, the Sheriff’s Office website identifies 36 by name. The remaining 64 names have been kept hidden from the public. 

Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams’ office, like others across Florida, has cited a new court ruling that said police officers who fear harm are victims and qualify to have their names kept confidential, even if they shoot or kill someone, under Marsy’s Law, a constitutional amendment approved by the state’s voters in 2018.

The Sheriff’s Office has treated every single police officer who has shot someone since January 2019 — 59 in total — as a victim and kept their names secret.

Marsy’s Law is meant to keep private the names and other personal information of crime victims. And since 2008, a total of 14 states’ voters have approved the law by a ballot initiative. (Two states’ supreme courts ruled their states’ initiatives unconstitutional, and a third state amended its law after its passage led to unforeseen consequences.)

A law created to protect crime victims is being used to take away accountability from police.

Christina Kittle, Jacksonville COmmunity Action Committee organizer

Christina Kittle, an organizer with the advocacy group Jacksonville Community Action Committee, said police are using the law to avoid accountability.

“It’s just frustrating knowing that a law created to protect crime victims is being used to take away accountability from police. That’s the opposite of transparency. It’s a step backward,” she said. “We hear from their side all the time that not all cops are bad. So, at what point do we get to have the tools to distinguish that.” 

In some cases, like the two in May, police said they shot suspects who had pulled a weapon. But in some cases, the Sheriff’s Office made no such claim, saying the suspects shot by officers were unarmed or even running away when officers shot at them.

In four cases, the Sheriff’s Office said those they shot had no weapons or just “hands/fist/feet/teeth/etc.” In a fifth case, the alleged weapon was a police Taser.

Even where officers were found to violate office policy in two cases, those officers’ names weren’t released. Those cases involved officers who shot but didn’t hit suspects, in a shooting in July of 2019 and a shooting in July of 2020, and both shootings were referred to the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office internal affairs.

The office is still not releasing the names of those officers, but a Tributary database compiled before the Sheriff’s Office scrubbed their names revealed they were Clifford Sames and Bryce Mrakovich respectively.

The Tributary is releasing its database, which names Jacksonville officers who have shot someone from 2007 through 2020, at https://tinyurl.com/JSOshootings.

The Sheriff’s Office extended these Marsy’s Law protections, retroactively making officers’ names secret, regardless of whether the officer was actually a victim, so that the office could review each case before re-releasing the names.

“We had to immediately do it. We have to remove their names,” said spokesman Officer Christian Hancock who said he’s been tasked with reviewing each shooting and asking officers if they feel they were victims. “Is it important to get that done? Yes. Is it at the top of my list every single day? No.”

Going forward, he said, police must document how they were victims through an incident or arrest report. “I can’t just say Andrew was not a nice guy and pushed me. I have to be listed as a victim of a crime.”

If an officer is considered a victim, then his or her name will also be redacted from internal-affairs and administrative reviews of a shooting, Hancock said.

Hancock didn’t give an estimate of how long it will take to finish reviewing past shootings.

Marsy’s Law’s proponents sold it to Floridians, like in other states, as a way to protect the privacy of crime victims. Still, lawyers warned that the law could harm transparency efforts and that police departments would use it to limit the release of information.

Law-enforcement officials say that if an officer needs to use their weapons, they should be considered victims too. But transparency advocates and some criminal justice experts say police departments are misusing the law to hide information from the public. 

“It’s another way of keeping officers above the law,” said Kami Chavis, a law professor at Wake Forest University and former assistant U.S. attorney. “If it were anyone else taking a life their pictures and names are in the evening news.”

Last summer, prompted by the murder of George Floyd, people demonstrated across the country, demanding that police stop killing people and that they be held accountable when they do.

In response, some police departments took steps toward implementing policies to be transparent in deadly force cases. Yet, in Florida a different debate started: Should police officers who kill people on duty be thought of as victims and have their names kept secret from the public? 

The largest police union in the state says yes. Police reform and transparency advocates say no. Regardless, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office and the State Attorney’s Office will comply with the law as they interpret it, which is to shield the names of officers in police shooting cases.

It is a constitutional amendment that is afforded to all victims of crime.

Christian Hancock, Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office

In effect, due in large part to Marsy’s Law, Jacksonville police shootings are less transparent than ever.

“Not releasing the identities of crime victims, citizens and police officers alike, has nothing to do with transparency,” Hancock said. “It is a constitutional amendment that is afforded to all victims of crime.”

Not all police officers however support the interpretation of the law.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri wrote in court documents that Marsy’s Law should not hide the name of police officers who have killed someone.

“That a use of force is justified does not shield the identity of the person using it from public view,” he wrote in a court filing in May. “Here, the appeals court misconstrued the plain test of Marsy’s Law by expanding it to suppress the identity of a police officer who shot and killed another person.”

Virginia Hamrick, a staff attorney with the First Amendment Foundation of Florida, said the state’s public records laws and victim-protection laws can co-exist.

“There can be privacy protections for victims of crime, and I think there can also be accountability for officers who use deadly force.” 

The law also had other unintended consequences, said Hamrick, the lawyer for the First Amendment Foundation. She said that police have also used Marsy’s Law to withhold information of where a crime has occurred because officers have considered buildings as victims.

“The way the amendment was marketed, it didn’t discuss this at all. So I don’t know where this came from,” she said. “This was not the point of the law at all when the amendment was up for a vote.”

The amendment had support across party lines and one of its biggest proponents was state Sen. Lauren Book, a Democrat from Broward County. But she introduced legislation that would have clarified the constitutional provision so that police departments could not use the constitutional amendment to shield officers’ names. Her bill failed.

Book’s office said she will continue to push for new legislation re-interpreting the amendment.

“After seeing news about misapplications of the law, Senator Book has again put legislation into drafting to prevent public employees who carry weapons from using Marsy’s Law in cases where their state-issued or approved weapon is discharged in the line of duty,” her office said in a statement.

Hamrick’s organization is arguing in favor of publicly releasing the names of two officers in a lawsuit between the city of Tallahassee and the Florida Police Benevolent Association, the state’s largest police union. 

In two separate incidents two officers fatally shot two men, Tony McDade, a Black trans man, and Wilbon Cleveland Woodard, another Black man. The officers say they felt threatened, making them victims, the Florida Police Benevolent Association argued in a lawsuit against the city of Tallahassee, which had said the officers’ names were exempt from Marsy’s law.

The Second Judicial Circuit Court agreed with the city, ruling the law “was not intended to apply to law enforcement officers when acting in their official capacity.”

The union appealed, and in April, a three-judge panel in the First District Court of Appeals unanimously reversed the lower court’s ruling. “That the officer acts in self-defense to that threat does not defeat the officer’s status as a crime victim,” wrote Judge Lori Rowe.

The First Amendment Foundation and news organizations have appealed the latest ruling to the state Supreme Court.

Officials with the Florida Police Benevolent Association didn’t respond to a request for comment and the lawyer representing the union in court declined to comment. But, the union’s president told WLRN he hopes the Florida Supreme Court does not hear the case.

As it stands now, the only time police will release the name of an officer who has shot someone but claims to be a victim is if prosecutors criminally charge the officer for unjustifiably killing or injuring someone.

Frank D. LoMonte, professor and director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at University of Florida, said another way the names of officers could become public is if someone files a civil rights lawsuit against an officer who injured or killed a person.

“It’s pretty routine to file a Defendant John Doe lawsuit and then make the opponent disclose the information to you under subpoena,” he said. “This happens all the time when people are victimized by government employees whose names they don’t know, like a person who’s shot with a rubber bullet or tear-gassed. So ultimately the name will end up becoming public anyway if there’s a lawsuit.”

ICYMI…

Melissa Nelson said police shooting videos would be released quicker. So why is the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office still taking months?

Around the web

Tributary notes

Andrew Pantazi | I want to thank Uriel J. García, who helped The Tributary the last few months with reporting on the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office. Uriel recently took a job at The Texas Tribune, covering immigration. Be sure to follow him on Twitter.

Putting together databases like our police-shooting database takes time and money, and we appreciate all of you who are already sustaining members of The Tributary. If you have any questions, about how you can support our newsroom, feel free to reach out to me at Andrew.Pantazi@jaxtrib.org.

Thank you to everyone who has already filled out our audience survey. If you haven’t yet, you can still fill it out here.

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Uriel J. García

I'm a freelance reporter based in Phoenix.

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