JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – More than three months after protests erupted in downtown Jacksonville in response to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office has released body camera footage showing some of the arrests of demonstrators for the first time.
Videos obtained Wednesday by News4Jax show the second day of large protests in downtown Jacksonville on Sunday, May 31. The day before — Saturday, May 30 — planned, peaceful protests began in front of the Police Memorial Building and evolved into unrest later in the day. Videos posted to social media captured some demonstrators looting and stomping on a police car, and JSO leadership said one officer was stabbed.
The Sheriff’s Office released 12 clips showing the arrests of protesters who came out on May 31. Four of the clips show the same 20-minute window of time that afternoon from the perspective of four different officers' body cameras.
All four of those vantage points begin as officers approach a large group of protesters on the lawn of the Duval County Courthouse. Protesters can be heard loudly chanting. An officer over loudspeaker instructing protesters to disperse from the public courthouse lawn can be faintly heard.
Minutes later, one vantage point shows an officer walk toward a group and say, “You need to leave or you’ll go to jail." A protester asks, "For what? What did I do?”
Local pastor Delaine Smith, who has since been awarded $10,000 from the Sheriff’s Office in a federal lawsuit over the protests, can be heard telling the protester, “It doesn’t matter, mama. Let’s go. They aren’t going to hurt you. Just go.”
The officer yells again, "Leave or go to jail,” before arresting the protester, Smith and another woman who told officers she was heading to the library but stopped to see what was going on in front of the courthouse.
The other three vantage points are from the other side of the courthouse lawn. Video shows officers surrounding the protesters and waiting several minutes as an officer yelling over loudspeaker instructs protesters gathered on the lawn to leave. The officer does not say why they are no longer allowed to protest at the courthouse. Americans' rights to peacefully assemble and protest are protected under the First Amendment.
Video also shows protesters walking away from the courthouse lawn during this time.
Eight minutes into one of the body cameras angles, the officer wearing the camera starts to walk and then run toward the side of the courthouse in the direction of some protesters walking away. An officer already arresting someone on the side of the courthouse instructs officers to arrest two people seen walking away.
One woman is stopped as she walks down the sidewalk and placed on her stomach on the ground. She tells the officer she didn’t do anything, and she was following instructions to walk to her car. She tells the officer, “I am not going to resist you.”
“I didn’t incite anything. All I did was provide water,” the woman can be heard saying.
She later asks officers why she’s being arrested. A female officer seen on body camera replies, “You didn’t walk fast enough.” Another officer adds, “Unlawful assembly.”
Another woman, DeAnna Baldacci, 21, said she was panicked as she was being arrested while peacefully protesting with other demonstrators.
“People know me. People know my heart. People know I would never hurt a fly,” she told News4Jax.
Baldacci said she was leaving the library when she saw the march and decided to join. She said she was leaving the area when an officer approached her and put her hands behind her back.
When asked if she was OK with the fact that the charges were dropped, she said: “That doesn’t change the fact that there’s still a problem that needs to be addressed.”
Baldacci’s attorney wants the record of her arrest sealed and Baldacci to be awarded monetary compensation.
Angles from the other officers that followed to the side of the building show two other protesters — a young man and older woman — being arrested on the same sidewalk, too.
Another body camera angle shows protesters on the Main Street Bridge on May 31. The vantage point shows a man being arrested by multiple officers after climbing down from the pedestrian sidewalk. He later claims on the body camera footage that he was trying to go home. An officer replies that it appeared he was resisting another officer.
Later, video clips from May 31 also show the protesters being unloaded from vans in another location and providing their information to officers. In one conversation with the pastor who was arrested, an officer offers his take on why protesters were being arrested.
“Everybody is legally able to protest. Once they start breaking the law, [be]cause you always have that handful of people, that’s why they shut it down before it escalates,” says the officer on camera.
In a news conference two days later, Sheriff Mike Williams implied there was lawbreaking during Sunday’s protest leading to arrests.
“You had eventually blocked traffic in the middle of the street, running over some innocent people’s cars who were trying to drive downtown, attempting to block the main street bridge on numerous occasions. We did have bottles thrown again on Sunday,” Williams said.
Between the protests during the last weekend in May, Jacksonville police arrested more than 70 demonstrators.
But in dispositions weeks after the protests, the State Attorney’s Office declined to press charges against any of demonstrators arrested on charges of unlawful assembly and resisting police without violence. The State Attorney’s Office said it viewed the arrest and booking reports for each incident and viewed videos taken from the day, including JSO’s drone and aerial footage.
The State Attorney’s Office said that based on the law, the facts and the circumstances, it was not going to press charges.
Public Defender and former county judge Charlie Cofer, whose office was representing many of the protesters, said in an interview in late June that the order to arrest protesters who were peacefully demonstrating was unlawful.
“When the formal protest, the organized protest, has ended, people still wanted to protest, and a determination was made by someone with the Sheriff' Office that the protest was over, so everybody had to leave,” Cofer said. “And so they start arresting people who didn’t want to leave or who were not leaving fast enough.”
He continued: “Once the people who are leading the protest say, ‘OK. We’re done,’ it doesn’t mean that people can’t still lawfully assemble and protest, and so my concern is about those circumstances that promoted the decision that they were no longer allowed to peacefully protest.”
The sheriff pushed back against criticism that arrests made by his officers were unlawful during a live interview on “The Morning Show.”
“It’s not the fact that we made arrests that were illegal. That’s not the case. But there’s a different threshold for her to have to prosecute those cases than there is for us to make the arrest on the street,” Williams said.
Since the protest, a federal judge has ruled in favor of four protesters who sued the agency over their arrests during the May 31 demonstration.
A federal judge ruled JSO had to pay $100,000 to settle the lawsuit. The judge also set stipulations for the Sheriff’s Office in future protests: JSO officers have to provide enough time for protesters to disperse and can’t make an order to disperse unless there’s a “well-grounded threat of imminent violence, a threat to the public or impairment of traffic.”
The Sheriff’s Office declined News4Jax’s request to discuss the content of the body-worn camera footage from May 31.
“As these incidents are currently under litigation, we are unable to speak on them. Further questions or comments related would need to come from the General Counsel’s Office,” said Officer Christian Hancock, with the Sheriff’s Office.
News4Jax did not hear back from the Office of General Counsel in time for publication.