Sheriff Mike Williams addresses $314K bill for public records

Jacksonville lawyer sounded alarm on steep quote from JSO

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Sheriff Mike Williams sat down Wednesday with reporters to share the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office's side of the story after an outspoken local lawyer cried foul over a $314,000 quote from the Sheriff's Office in response to a records request about an officer's history and other items.

The day after that quote generated headlines, Williams said he hoped to set the record straight about it. He said the estimate was accurate because attorney John Phillips requested not only the conduct and disciplinary history of Officer Timothy James, but also records detailing how the agency policed itself over the last decade.

“Could we learn a little something about customer service in this? Sure," Williams said, acknowledging that better communication from the outset likely would have prevented the dispute from playing out so publicly.

He said the request included information on every officer who has worked for JSO in that 10-year period and that those records and thousands of hours of video and audio requested would all have to be reviewed and redacted, driving up the cost of the estimate. Producing James' file alone would cost $600, he said.

"Unless you know what the volume is that you're asking for, it's tough to say the estimate is exorbitant," the sheriff said.

READ: Public records request, JSO response

He said the Sheriff's Office is required by law to provide an estimate of the cost to the person requesting the records and that if the person agrees to pay it, the Sheriff's Office has to provide those records. He said those who initially receive high estimates usually narrow the scope of their search to reduce the cost.

James has a history of problems in his three-plus years with the agency. He was arrested last month after a sergeant reported seeing him beat a handcuffed teen. A month earlier, his patrol car struck and killed a pedestrian. Before that, he was accused of spitting on a patient outside UF Health Jacksonville.

Phillips represents the family of 62-year-old Blane Land, who was hit and killed by James' patrol car while crossing University Boulevard in May, as well as Elias Campos, the 17-year-old at the center of the incident that resulted in the officer's arrest.

Last month he asked for records related to the disciplinary history of James. He also sought information detailing the agency's past handling of complaints against officers. What he got was the $314,000 total. He shared that information on social media Monday night.

"When [the Sheriff's Office] kills someone and then sends a $314,000 bill for public records, when they know they kept a bad officer on the force. #shame," Phillips wrote in a tweet accompanied by a picture of the estimate.

READ: Attorney's complete request for public records on officer's history |  
The Sheriff's Office's response to a reporter's questions about the costly estimate

In response to Williams' comments, Phillips sent a statement saying it took the Sheriff's Office a month to send an invoice for the records request. He said at no point did the sheriff speak with him directly about it until they had a phone conversation Wednesday.

Phillips didn't buy Williams' explanation for the costs. He compared the situation to ordering fast food. He reasoned that a chain wouldn't bill a customer for the construction of a new restaurant if the customer tried to order an item from a different chain's menu.

"When I go to Chick-fil-A and order for my whole family and then add in a request for a Whopper, Chick-fil-A does not void my entire order or seek to charge me the cost to build a Burger King next door. They fulfill what they can," Phillips' statement reads in part. 

Phillips, who said he's never seen such a steep price for public records, characterized it as a tactic that may have a chilling effect on future requests. But he indicated he's willing to go to court to get them.

"Whether we file a Freedom of Information Act request or we file suit, we are going to get that information," he said. "A judge will let us have most of this information to the extent that it has already been created anyway."

About the Authors:

Lifetime Jacksonville resident anchors the 8 and 9 a.m. weekday newscasts and is part of the News4Jax I-Team.

Jim Piggott is the reporter to count on when it comes to city government and how it will affect the community.