Despite violence, beach community isn't changing

Jacksonville Beach officer-involved shooting latest in string of violence

By Elizabeth Campbell - Reporter, Corley Peel - Reporter

JACKSONVILLE BEACH, Fla. - An area known for tourism and entertainment became a major crime scene Wednesday night after a police officer was targeted by gunfire outside the Waffle House on Beach Boulevard near Third Street. It was the latest blemish for Jacksonville Beach.

Cpl. William Eierman, a 16-year veteran of the Jacksonville Beach Police Department, was released from Memorial Hospital on Thursday, less than 24 hours after he was shot during an encounter with  27-year-old Jovan Sisljagic, a Jacksonville resident.

Police Chief Pat Dooley said Sisljagic shot at a moving police car before firing at Eierman and at another officer in what he called a run-and-gun battle.

At a morning news conference, Dooley called his community a playground for millions. 

"We have the draw here of the beach, things to do. It brings people out here. With that, people aren't always going to play by the rules, and we have to deal with it," Dooley said.

According to Jacksonville Beach Mayor Charlie Latham, 90 percent of those arrested in the city do not live in Jacksonville Beach, including Wednesday night's gunman, who is now charged with attempted murder.

The mayor said he can’t stop people from visiting, and wouldn't if he could. The community wants people to visit, but one thing has to change.

"Bring your manners when you come, because you’re going to find that we’re going to be prepared, ready and able to enforce the laws quickly and swiftly and to the fullest extent of the law," Latham said. 

The mayor spoke highly of Eierman and his fellow officers.

"I’m just exceedingly proud. It takes a tremendous amount of guts to run into a gunfight and stand for your colleagues, and that’s exactly what he did," Latham said. "So he’s a hero to me and to a lot of people here in the community."

One of those proud community members is Fernando Meza.

"He’s definitely a strong person," Meza said of Eierman. "I can tell by his demeanor and his persona that he’s a tough cookie."

Recent rash of violence

The officer-involved shooting followed a string of several high-profile violent crimes in Jacksonville Beach. 

Locals have been on high alert due to the recent violence, but were even more shaken by Wednesday night's shooting.

“The crowds have changed and there’s been a lot more violence. It's noticeable," Jacksonville Beach resident Hunter Copeland said. "It’s a privilege to go out and hang out in a setting like this. Let’s not take away from that or have people scared to come visit.”

VIDEO: Jacksonville Beach residents, visitors shaken by officer shooting

Since June, there have been several shootings, including the murder of 23-year-old Leon Bennett. There have also been sex attacks and fights reported in Jacksonville Beach. 

Some residents said they're even taking extra safety precautions.

“Especially at night, biking around, I do," resident Brandon Long said. "After a certain point at night, I’m not sure if I want to stay out or stay inside.”

Visitors and tourists, such as Gerri Bortz, said they hope the violence doesn't get worse and the area goes back to being calm. 

"(Usually) everybody’s friendly and there’s no crime and no problems," Bortz said. 

Before the shooting, the city of Jacksonville Beach held a workshop to discuss plans to increase safety downtown. One of the plans they discussed was moving forward with closing some of the restaurants at midnight instead of 2 a.m., however, nothing has been officially approved at this time.

Copyright 2018 by WJXT News4Jax - All rights reserved.