Nelson issues new policy on body camera footage in police shootings

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Saying that “swift and certain” public release of body-camera footage is in the public’s best interest, State Attorney Melissa Nelson on Tuesday announced changes to the policies involving videos of police shootings.

Nelson said the State Attorney’s Office for Duval Clay and Nassau counties will now approve the release of footage from police shootings within 30 days unless the state believes it will hinder a case.

The 30-day period provides the State Attorney’s Office “the necessary time to ensure the integrity of the criminal investigation, to notify and consult with those depicted in the footage or their families, and to confirm accurate and complete information will be released.”

The new policy reduces the time from incident to preliminary review by the team that investigates police shootings from several months to 21 days. During that time period, the SAO said, an effort will be made to take all potential witness statements, including that of any officer using deadly force before public disclosure of the body-camera footage.

“We listened and we acted,” said Nelson, who committed to make changes in June following widespread protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death. “This policy assures accountability and provides the public a time frame they can count on.”

Nelson said the policy is a first in Florida.

“I think it’s a good policy, I think it’s thoughtful, I think it’s well researched,” Nelson told News4Jax. “I’m really proud of the work of the assistant state attorneys in the office, who’ve been working really diligently on putting it together. So I think it’s a good day for Jacksonville, and for the Fourth Circuit.”

If body-camera footage is released before witnesses are interviewed, the footage may taint witnesses’ recollections, or worse, allow them to confirm their accounts to match the video evidence, the SAO said.

The release of body camera footage has been a sore spot between the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office and the State Attorney’s Office since some JSO officers starting wearing the cameras at the end of 2018. To date, footage from only two police-involved shootings has been made public.

Exceptional circumstances may include additional time to review and/or redact body-camera footage to protect the privacy of victims or other persons depicted, to complete interviews with principal eyewitnesses, or to complete other essential aspects of the initial investigation, the policy states.

If there are not exceptional circumstances, JSO will be the agency to release the body-camera video, Nelson said.

“[Sheriff Mike Williams] has committed that he is going to make this record public upon our, our notification as to whether or not we have an objection,” Nelson said.

News4Jax spoke with Sheriff Williams on Tuesday just as he was leaving the meeting with Nelson and community leaders.

We asked him when he would be releasing the video and he says after 30 days or when the state attorney’s office determines that it’s OK to release it.

He said the policy change is the first step in a process that is evolving.

“We are in total agreement of the policy. We think it’s a good move. A lot of work went into this. We looked at a lot of agencies around the country,” he said. “We believe we are the first agency in the state that has a solid cooperative effort with the state attorneys office and law-enforcement agencies about the release of body camera footage.”

News4Jax crime and safety expert Ken Jefferson said it’s a good move by Nelson.

“It shows you the power of the people,” Jefferson said. “Government is supposed to be of the people for the people and by the people. And what Mrs. Nelson has shown is that she has heard the cry, she has examined everything, she’s accessed her office, she vowed to make changes and these changes have now come to fruition.”

Only two law enforcement agencies in the 4th Judicial Circuit, which Nelson oversees, have body-worn cameras: the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office and the Fernandina Beach Police.

But if other police departments in the 4th Circuit get body cameras those agencies would be subject to the policy too.

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