The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office regularly charges thousands of dollars before it will release videos from police shootings, a severe barrier to access for those who can’t afford it, according to the agency’s responses to records requests by The Tributary.

For body-camera videos in 18 police shootings since 2018 that had not yet been posted online by the Sheriff’s Office, The Tributary received an invoice amounting to $4,966.

Two months ago, The Tributary revealed that the Sheriff’s Office was failing to fulfill State Attorney Melissa Nelson’s promise that videos would be released within 30 days of each shooting. In the months since that story, the Tributary has learned both offices have maintained additional barriers that impede the public from seeing what happens when police shoot people.

The Sheriff’s Office does not publish police-shooting videos immediately upon the state attorney’s office’s approval for release, according to spokesman Officer Christian Hancock. 

Both Jacksonville Sheriff Williams and State Attorney Nelson were elected on promises of making their agencies more transparent.

Neither agency releases videos online as soon as they are deemed ready for public disclosure.

The State Attorney’s Office has released some videos to media organizations by request, for a smaller charge, since the new September policy, according to emails between the office and journalists obtained by the Tributary. In the past, outlets have split the cost — usually in the hundreds, not thousands — for videos among them. 

Despite assurances by Nelson and Williams last fall that the Sheriff’s Office would release police-shooting videos as soon as prosecutors cleared them, Hancock said he was “not aware of a promise that JSO would proactively release” videos of police shootings, but said he would look into it.

Hancock said the agency only publishes videos when requested.

To make that request, the Sheriff’s Office requires the public to navigate a labyrinthine bureaucracy. 

First, the office must receive a letter from the State Attorney’s Office confirming the records would not interfere with a criminal investigation. This waiting period has been criticized as legally dubious by some experts.

That letter, sent by the state attorney, is not posted online by the State Attorney’s Office, according to Nelson’s spokesperson, David Chapman.

If you request a record before the Sheriff’s Office receives the letter, then the office will reject your request. You will have no way of knowing when the Sheriff’s Office received the letter until you get a rejected or accepted request.

Next, assuming the State Attorney’s Office has sent its letter, the Sheriff’s Office will review whether it agrees that footage can or cannot be released to the public. If you request a record before the Sheriff’s Office agrees, it will reject your request. 

“The SAO and JSO conduct separate, but simultaneous investigations of OIS [police shooting] incidents,” Hancock said in an email. “The SAO determines whether releasing the evidence would hinder their investigation, while JSO would determine if it would hinder our investigation.”

If at any point during this process your request is rejected or closed, you must go to the back of the line and try again.

If the prosecutors office and the police agency both agree the video must be released, you will get an invoice estimating the cost of the videos, which will run into the hundreds or thousands of dollars. The Sheriff’s Office will close your request if fees go unpaid. If you pay, the office can take months to fulfill the request. 

In November, for example, according to Sheriff’s Office records, the office received requests from WOKV, First Coast News, News4Jax and Action News for footage of the police shooting of Devon Gregory.

A month later, the Sheriff’s Office said it would cost $864. In March, more than four months after the initial requests, the office finally released the videos to the three latter media outlets, which split the cost. The Sheriff’s Office still did not post the videos on its transparency website or YouTube page.

In April, media requests for all videos from a police shooting at a hotel resulted in a bill for $2,008. As an alternative, the Sheriff’s Office offered that someone could pay $302 to just get the footage from the police officer who shot and killed Michael Hughes. No one paid, so the videos were never released.

The Tributary racked up an even larger fee for a request made July 9 for body-camera footage from 20 police shootings dating back to 2018: $4,188 for video from 15 of the incidents, with a quarter of those originally requested marked as unavailable due to “active criminal investigation.”

Last fall, State Attorney Melissa Nelson repeatedly told reporters “the public will know if we object to the public disclosure of body-worn cameras. And if we do object, why we object, and when we don’t, the public will know that as well.” 

At two points, reporters asked Nelson to clarify how the public will know. She said she will send letters so the public can see. Yet her office is not proactively releasing those letters and is requiring the public file records requests or send repeated emails to get answers about the status of investigations.

On July 30, The Tributary asked the State Attorney’s Office about the shootings that police said were still active investigations. Almost three weeks later, spokesman David Chapman responded. They were not active investigations, he said.

After pushback, the Sheriff’s Office on Aug. 3 agreed to make videos from three more shootings available — for a cost. It still says that two are not public. The total cost for videos of 18 shootings: $4,966.

While the Sheriff’s Office said those two shootings aren’t public because they’re active investigations, one of the people shot already pleaded guilty back in May and the other was charged by prosecutors last October.

State Attorney’s Office spokesman Chapman said the cases are not considered active investigations by state prosecutors.

The updated charge of nearly $5,000 accounts for 115 videos associated with the shootings and $43.18 per hour in labor costs, according to the invoice. Even a narrower version of the request requesting just the bodycam videos that captured the shootings directly cost over $2,300.

Nearly a month elapsed between The Tributary’s first request and the Sheriff’s Office’s first complete invoice.

The State Attorney’s Office waited longer to even acknowledge records requests, only responding on Aug. 26, seven weeks after receiving the request. The response came after The Tributary informed the office it was about to publish a story that would say the office had not acknowledged the requests.

As of Sept. 7 — two months after asking for the footage made — the request was marked “Sent for Final Review.”

Last fall, State Attorney Nelson said even though her office believed the Sheriff’s Office was the “custodian” of the videos, her office would have to fulfill records requests it received.

Nelson said that under her new policy, prosecutors would approve videos for release within 30 days of a shooting and then the Sheriff’s Office would release the videos almost instantly. The only exception, she said, was where prosecutors believed they needed more time to review because an officer’s shooting might not be legally justified.

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Emily Wilder is a freelance journalist.