JSO ready to test body cameras

40 to 60 officers will be given body cameras in pilot program in July

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Before the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office begins testing body cameras next month, Sheriff Mike Williams laid out the plan for the pilot program at a community meeting Thursday night.

The meeting, which started at 6:30 p.m. at the Florida State College at Jacksonville Downtown Campus, followed six town hall meetings that JSO used to gather feedback from the public about body cameras. 

“It's a tool. It's a really good tool. It's a really powerful tool, but it's just that -- it's just a piece of the puzzle,” Williams told News4Jax ahead of the meeting Thursday. “This is not a magic bullet. This does not fix every deal that our city has in terms of relationships with the community. It helps. It's a big help.”

WATCH: Interview with Sheriff Williams on body cameras

Williams and his department have been working out the details and are now ready to implement the body camera test.

There's been concern from the police union and from the public about how the program will work.

JSO's test program will begin in July with 40 to 60 officers being equipped with body cameras that the officers will be allowed to turn on and off at their discretion.

“If you were in a community like Chicago, the Chicago Police Department when they started their body camera program, (the camera) was turned on at roll call and turned off at the end of the shift, so they were catching conversations with wives. They were catching bathroom breaks, catching things that were unnecessary, first of all, so they got sued by the union to shut down the whole program until they could correct that,” Williams explained.

The sheriff said supervisors will monitor officers with cameras to see if they are turning them off too often, but in some cases disabling the camera is required by law to protect confidentiality.

JSO decided that in addition to allowing officers to turn cameras on and off, officers will also be able to review the tapes before writing their official report of what happened.

“You want the best report you can have at the end of the day,” Williams said. “They will help us have a better court case.”

Activist groups in Jacksonville have said that they body cameras are a step in the right direction but they are concerned about the lack of trust between the officers and the community. A Rally for Police Accountability was held at the FSCJ Downtown campus at 5:30 p.m. ahead of Williams' community meeting.

"The JSO pilot bodycam program is a major victory for the local grassroots organizations and community activists who fought hard for the creation of the program for more than two years," said Ben Frazier, of the Northside Coalition of Jacksonville.

But Frazier also said that “other police reforms are necessary to ensure greater police transparency and accountability.”

During Thursday night's meeting -- which was mostly attended by members of activists groups, the Jacksonville Progressive Coalition and the Northside Coalition -- Williams explained each officer will be required to undergo training on the body cameras before putting one on. Reaction to the sheriff's proposals were mixed.

"I really don't have a lot of faith in bodycams without a real police accountability board. What I mean by that is a board of citizens, (who) are not related to or former law enforcement officers, to investigate cases," said Elenore Wilson, a member of the Jacksonville Progressive Coalition. “Bodycams are great, but right now, we all have our cellphones on us. Incidents, like the April Hemming Park incident, was filmed by every possible angle. But we still do not have citizens reviewing and able to hold police accountable for their actions, and until we have that, we’re not going to have true justice.”

The discussion quickly shifted to the Hemming Park protest that escalated into a fight, in which police officers had to get involved. Some of the protesters attended the meeting, raising questions about how body cameras will bring police accountability since cellphone footage of the violent protest didn't result in officers being disciplined. 

RELATED: Charges dropped against 2 Hemming Park protesters

"How do body cameras make me and these people of the community respect your office after an incident like that," said Catherine Corby, Jacksonville Progressive Coalition member. “I don’t think body cameras are the answer. I think it’s part of the answer."

Gary Snow, a local leader of Blue Lives Matter, also attended the community meeting. Snow, who was blamed by the Jacksonville Progressive Coalition for instigating the Hemming Park altercation, voiced his belief that the cameras will increase accountability. 

"This is going to create an equilibrium between the public and the police. This isn't going to be a cellphone video that someone can take home and edit for their own narrative. This is something police are going to use in their investigations," Snow said. "After bodycam programs have been initiated in certain cities, we've seen a dramatic drop in police misconduct accusations and complaints against police officers."

Despite grilling from activists, Williams maintained that his office will discipline any officer who does not adhere to the body camera rules. The sheriff also admitted the Hemming Park incident could have been handled differently had officers intervened before things turned physical.

Williams said it will about a year before the pilot program ends and JSO has cameras for all officers.

The Fraternal Order of Police wants body cameras to be part of contract negotiations, but a spokesman declined to comment Thursday about the sheriff's plan.

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