JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The Jacksonville Sheriff's Office admitted Thursday that it was breaking state records laws by failing to save emails as required and potentially erasing useful information for people charged with crimes.
Sheriff Mike Williams issued a statement saying that his department is making changes to the way emails are stored and to how long they're kept.
The problem came to light last month after the Florida Times-Union met with Williams about the JSO's inability to produce requested emails in a timely manner.
Thousands of emails come in and out of JSO every week, and News4Jax legal expert Ed Birk said those emails are public record and supposed to be saved.
"The point where it gets difficult is for how long," Birk said. "There are standards and regulations published by the state. You can’t really state an email has to be save for X number of months or years. It’s what is in the email. It is the type of communication it is. It’s the purpose of that email. If it's used in litigation. If it's used in prosecution. There are different periods of retention for those documents."
Williams' statement said JSO doesn't have a system for retaining emails for the length of time specified by law -- usually three to five years. He said he immediately ordered a full internal review and began "working with my team to rectify the problem."
The Times-Union record request that prompted the investigation involved the jail term of a prisoner. Williams admitted that those emails and others were deleted after 90 days because of storage issues.
No one will say who set the policy at JSO to delete emails after 90 days, but that is against state law.
Times-Union editor Frank Denton said he and his staff were surprise to learn the records weren't being kept.
"I think in the paper I was quoted as saying 'stunned' because we've had trouble with JSO for years getting records and access to information," Denton said.
Williams promised that employees will be trained in record keeping going forward under their new system.
"As I have said many times, public trust is built through the continued demonstration of commitment to doing all the many things we should do, and doing them well. Transparency is one of the 'must do well' commitments and we will fix this," Williams said in the statement.
"At this point if that's all they've got, that's all they can do," Denton said. "And I've got to say I appreciate Sheriff Williams' response to this."
News4Jax crime and safety expert and former JSO officer Gil Smith, who dealt with email requests in his role at the department, said he believes Williams is trying to be transparent about the problem.
"Now they just have to work through to get the proper interpretation of the law for each case to see how long these records are supposed to be kept," Smith said. "You've got to remember, in the past these records were kept in boxes, you could throw them in the storage bin and keep them. It was no big deal. Electronically, it's a whole different issue."
The State Attorney’s Office said It’s currently unaware of any cases or convictions compromised by the retention matter. The State Attorney's Office will assist the JSO in any way it can to correct the issue, officials said.
"Now that we raised Cain with the Sheriff's Office, I suspect other agencies are going to go back and look at their own policies and what records they save," Denton said.
News4Jax checked with some of those other agencies.
The city said it hangs on to emails indefinitely, particularly those of the mayor. The St. Johns County Sheriff's Office has emails that go back to the year 2000. We are still waiting to hear from other departments.