JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Protesters across the country continue to call for the defunding of police departments in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. They say they want funding in cities to be reallocated to take the responsibility for support and prevention services out of the hands of law enforcement.
Jacksonville City Councilwoman Joyce Morgan raised the question to Sheriff Mike Williams during a committee meeting Monday, saying she’s not calling for defunding but would like to see some restructuring of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office budget.
Williams’ response was swift.
“I think defunding of law enforcement agencies is probably the worst policy that I could ever imagine,” he said. “I know that flies in the face of some of the things that we’re hearing around the country, but I would adamantly oppose that.”
Williams said about 85% of his budget goes toward salaries and benefits for officers, so it would be difficult to trim the budget without affecting operations.
“When you talk about defunding police, cutting bodies is all you can do really," he said, adding that it’s the same in most communities across the country.
He said he believes communities of color would be disproportionately affected if officers had to be cut from his staff, which he says is already smaller than it was 10 years ago.
Despite balking at any budget cuts for his agency, Williams acknowledged the need for certain services to be handled outside of JSO. He said over the years, police have taken on more and more responsibility for services because it was a way for communities to check the box to say they were taking care of that because an officer was trained for it -- on top of all their other duties.
“I completely disagree with that thought process," he said. “I would agree, there are things that need to be addressed in terms of funding different programs and services in the community, but I don’t think that needs to come from, or at the expense of, law enforcement.”
Williams also addressed the possibility that the current climate of protests against police brutality and other social justice issues will make it harder to recruit officers.
He said his agency has had a difficult time recruiting even before this year because of the pay and benefits scale. He said there’s a diverse group of people who have always wanted to be a police officer and will sign up, despite having more lucrative options. But they are few and far between these days.
“We’ve got to do a good job of selling this profession to not only minority communities but to communities around the country and try to pull people here,” Williams said.
He said a difficult recruiting situation has only been made tougher by the current climate.
“I think it’s going to be a challenge and it’s just another hurdle for us to have to get over,” Williams said.
The committee Williams spoke with will be considering a bill that would require JSO to release body camera footage.
A description of the bill on the city’s website reads: “The purpose of this legislation is to promote public trust and transparency in cases where police violence or misconduct is alleged.”
Williams addressed the bill by repeating to the council members what he told News4Jax during an interview on Friday -- that his agency and the State Attorney’s Office have been working together to come up with a timetable for the release of video in police-involved shootings and other investigations.
Williams said JSO is required by law to not release footage until after it has completed an internal review process -- a process that can’t begin until after the State Attorney’s Office completes the criminal investigation of the incident.
But, Williams said, State Attorney Melissa Nelson is not bound by that same law and is free to release video once her part of the investigation is complete.
He said moving forward, that’s what will happen.
“We made the decision a few weeks ago that we feel like -- in order to allow me to continue to follow the law and also to get bodycam footage into the public square as quickly as we can -- that she can be the release point for the body camera footage,” Williams said. “It can be convoluted, I understand that, but I think the more you see the pathway of how it flows, I think the more you see of where we are.”
Williams said the goal is to have the State Attorney’s Office release a timetable for when the public can expect to see that body camera footage so that the community knows what to expect.
“They are in the process now of evaluating multiple cases to see how long they took, what can they do with their internal processes over there, to potentially expedite some of these things. You’ll see that coming soon,” Williams said. “But that’s a decision that comes out of the State Attorney’s Office, not JSO.”
The City Council resolution says it accepts that body camera footage should not be released until after all investigations are complete.
Body camera video has been at the center of several officer-involved shooting investigations in Jacksonville, but none of those videos have been released yet.
News4Jax records show that since JSO implemented its body camera policy in 2018, there have been 21 police-involved shootings in which 23 people were shot.
The State Attorney’s Office has ruled that four of the 21 officer-involved shootings were justifiable. The remaining cases are still under investigation.
Of those four, only one officer was wearing a body camera. Williams said that footage could be released as early as the end of the week when the internal review is complete -- nearly a year after the fatal shooting.
Nelson was not available to comment Monday on the new body camera video policy.