As Jacksonville grapples with unrest over police transparency, Sheriff Mike Williams recently committed to listening to concerns from the community.
On Friday, Williams joined The Morning Show to answer questions about the city’s response to the recent protests and demonstrations calling for criminal justice reform and increased accountability.
We asked you to participate in the discussion by sharing questions you have for the sheriff. Below are a few topics that several viewers expressed interest in that we put to the sheriff, along with his responses.
For more from the interview, press the play button above.
Releasing body camera footage
Melanie: You’ve listed the limitations as far as releasing body camera video, even saying that some of the laws surrounding this are a bit antiquated. You have the NACCP asking for something very specific, that the video be released within 48 hours of police shootings. If your hands weren’t tied on that, would you support this?
Sheriff Williams: So I think you have to weigh the integrity of these investigations -- and what I mean by that is that we owe it to every family involved in these cases to make sure that we get these investigations correct -- and when you release video very early in an investigation you taint every single witness that would come forward.
Remember, when we are conducting these cases, body camera footage is just one piece of evidence. It can sometimes be very powerful and sometimes not, but it’s only one piece of evidence. Witness statements, other forensic evidence, things that we gather at the scene, all of that has to piece together and so the story that we’ve been told makes sense. All of these things corroborate together.
So if we begin to put pieces of that case -- be it body camera footage, witness statements -- out into the community very early on, everything after that is tainted, so if I have a witness that comes forward and says, ‘I was there. Here’s what I saw.’ I can promise you there’s an attorney that going to come forward and say, ‘That witness didn’t see anything. They watched footage on television.’
So we’ve got to balance again the integrity of the investigation with being open and transparent with the community, so I believe that what we’ve come up with -- as the state looks now to develop a timetable for release -- is to give a timetable for how long that investigation is going to take. We will deliver the facts and evidence to the State Attorney’s Office within 30 days. She’s now working on the timetable for her to complete that criminal investigation -- and she’ll make that announcement as soon as they’re done with their process -- and that will be the point of release for body camera footage.
I think as long as the community knows that it’s going to be 90 days or 60 days or 120 days -- make that promise to the community and then keep that promise, I think that will go a long way with at least giving people what the appropriate expectation is for seeing some of this video.
Citizen review of police shootings
Jennifer: Do you understand why the public is concerned -- because you basically have law enforcement, police supervisors who are specifically reviewing the actions and perhaps in some cases if it’s founded, the problems associated with the police officer involved shooting in which that officer did something wrong -- why they feel it’s important to have public input in that?
Sheriff Williams: I do, but you’re mixing two issues. When you talk about police shootings, that’s a criminal investigation on that police officer and that’s conducted the same way any criminal investigation is conducted on anybody in the community. There are no additional protections for the police officer during that criminal part of the investigation.
The administrative review, when we talk about that, that’s 'Did he violate policy? That determination has already been made if he’s violated the law or not, and if he did, he’s indicted, and that process moves forward. If he did not, then he’s cleared by the State Attorney and then we can begin the administrative review of ‘Did he violate our policy in terms of whatever the incident is -- whether it’s a shooting or a rudeness complaint?’
In that process, again that’s covered by state law, the important thing for us is to make sure that at the points where we can be transparent, because of current law, that we do that. And then at the end of these cases, all of that information is available to the community, so you can look back and say, ‘We don’t like the way this process went,’ and challenge, in the case of an administrative review, challenge us. In the case of a decision made by the State Attorney, challenge the State Attorney’s Office on what that decision is.
These cases are not confidential forever; it’s just during the process. I think what you’re seeing here is a lack of trust in the system, and we all have to work hard to make sure that we’re putting the right information out, and that we are working every day to build trust. It’s really hard to build trust in a crisis. I’ve said that over and over again. And we’ve worked hard every day before this crisis, since the first day I was elected sheriff, to make sure we’re working to try to build trust in the community, and we’ll continue to do that. But all of this really boils down to a lack of trust (from) the community, and we all have to work on that.
Melanie: I know you have sensitivity and diversity training. How much of the budget actually goes to this type of service really to bridge that gap, understanding that we all have bias, and perception and relationship is so important, so what does that entail as far as your community policing approaches?
Sheriff Williams: Community policing is an approach, like you said. It’s not really a class. It’s not really a group of officers that do that. I think it started like that years ago, but community policing is a concept.
If you think about what that means, you’re going to get a million different definitions, but to me, it means this, it means you’re open to having conversations with the community, you’re partnering with the community. This is not an ‘us and them’ operation between law enforcement and the community. We are members of the community.
We’ve got to make sure that we embed that in our young officers as they come up through the ranks as they work through our training program and then come up through the ranks because at the end of the day, we can’t be successful if we’re not partnering with our community. When we have challenges, crime challenges in the community, the neighborhoods in our city where we’re most successful is where we have the best relationships with our community. And so we’ve got to continue to work on that.
In terms of community policing, that is the concept that we embed through everything we do here at JSO.