The Jacksonville Sheriff's Office has settled a wrongful death lawsuit with the family of a 36-year-old unarmed motorist who was shot and killed by an officer in a 2012 traffic stop.
According to the law firm representing the family of Davinian Williams, the settlement was for $1.9 million, which is far beyond than the normal $300,000 cap for suits against the city. The settlement, which is subject to court approval, was reached just days before the trial was supposed to begin on April 10.
Sheriff Mike Williams also wrote a letter of apology to Williams' family ” and shared changes that have been made to policies and practices at JSO, including "traffic stop procedures and the early warning system."
“I pray that Mr. Williams rests in peace and that the pain of all of his loved ones is eased,” Williams wrote.
Officer Jeff Edwards shot Williams seven times after pulling him over May 9, 2012, near the intersection of Arlington Road and Arlington Expressway. Edwards said at the time that he thought Williams was reaching for his gun, but no weapon was found in Williams' car.
Police said Williams blew through several red lights before stopping and "fidgeted," making Edwards believe he was a threat. The Sheriff's Office said that Williams was found to have 17 grams of cocaine in his sneakers.
The family's wrongful death lawsuit made several claims, including: "A documented history within the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office of unjustified shootings carried out by JSO officers, and a practice of allowing such shootings to continue without consequences for the officers involved in said shootings."
"What happened here after four, over four years of battling this out in state and federal court was that the city decided to do the right thing and not just to compensate that children that were left behind as a result of this unnecessary killing, but to also take a hard look internally and to see what mistakes were that the city and the Sheriff's Office had committed and to own up to them and to identify them and to try to correct those mistakes going forward," said Rufus Pennington, attorney for the Williams' family.
On Thursday, William's ex-wife, Ladrena Thomas, released a statement on behalf of Williams' family, saying:
I am amazed to receive this kind of response and apology from Sheriff Mike Williams on behalf of the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office. Our family is grateful for the acknowledgment of the multiple errors that led to our tragic loss. We hope that these improvements in traffic stop procedures and officer training set an example for other law enforcement agencies across the country."
Earlier this year, Edwards shared his side of the story with the Williams' family attorney, who planned to play Edwards' video taped deposition if the case went to trial.
Pennington said there were instances in Edwards' past leading up to the shooting that should have triggered new training for the officer to avoid something like this happening.
"Officer Edwards feels grieved that the training policy was changed after the shooting, in response to the shooting," Pennington said. "The city really didn't give him the training prior to (the) shooting (they) should have given him."
That training, according to Pennington, is the early warning system that would have been triggered by multiple instances in the months leading up to the shooting.
"There were five instances of Officer Edwards using force, and it so happens that all of those were against young black males," Pennington said. "According to the early warning system protocol, if you have three of those incidents within a certain time period, there should be an evaluation and an intervention. That should have occurred here."
Because it didn’t, Pennington believes not only was Edwards negligent, as former Sheriff John Rutherford concluded after an internal affairs investigation, but the agency fostered this problem among other officers.
That early warning system was one of the subjects addressed by current Sheriff Mike Williams in his apology letter. The letter details steps that the sheriff says the agency has taken to address issues and concerns regarding the early warning system that the family identified during the lawsuit.
"We hope you will recognize this attention to our training, policies and procedures as responsive to the tragic encounter between Officer Edwards and Mr. Williams and consistent with our continuing commitment to improving JSO's performance and meeting its responsibility to the Jacksonville community," the sheriff wrote. "As always, please know that we are at your service."
Sheriff Rutherford fired Edwards after the deadly shooting, saying he made mistakes in the field, such as not waiting for backup, and put himself in a dangerous situation that led to the use of deadly force.
The officer was reinstated after arbitration by the officers' union, the Fraternal Order of Police, which claimed use of deadly force was justified because Williams refused to obey Edwards' orders to put his hands up.
After he got his job back, Edwards was placed on desk duty and he eventually resigned.