Jacksonville sheriff praises DeSantis’ support for law enforcement after controversial bill signed

We're digging deeper into the "anti-riot" law that Governor DeSantis signed this week. It came about in response to protests last summer, including some here in Jacksonville.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams voiced his support for new legislation signed Monday by Gov. Ron DeSantis that aims to crack down on those who participate in protests that turn violent.

Williams declined an interview request from News4Jax to talk about the potential impact of the so-called “anti-riot” bill but he did issue a statement.

“I am very pleased that our Governor has demonstrated yet again his support for law enforcement in signing House Bill 1 – the Anti-Riot Bill,” Williams said in a statement Monday about the Republican-backed bill. “Jacksonville, along with the rest of the state is ready to work together to build stronger bridges of trust and cooperation while maintaining public safety. Public Safety is paramount for everyone in Florida – our families, our neighbors and our businesses.”

Democrats, on the other hand, called it a sad day, and say the new laws are unconstitutional.

DeSantis proposed the new laws last September months after the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd sparked nationwide protests and calls for police reform.

The bill will change some criminal misdemeanors to felonies relating to protests. It also prevents people from bailing out of jail until their first court appearance if they were arrested for rioting or other offenses committed during a riot. The bill would also grant civil legal immunity to people who drive through protesters blocking a road and allows state officials to block any effort to cut police budgets.

“Obviously in the state of Florida, we’re not going to do that under my leadership but if the local government were to do that, that would be catastrophic and have terrible consequences for their citizens and so this bill actually prevents against local governments defunding funding law enforcement,” DeSantis said. “There should be no doubt, the minute I sign this bill into law, anybody who wears the uniform in service of protecting the public, this bill makes very clear, the state of Florida stands with you.”

When protests erupted in Jacksonville last May, more than 80 people were arrested for unlawful assembly. All except, four people who were charged with felonies had their charges dropped by State Attorney Melissa Nelson.

Two Jacksonville residents who took part in protests that followed the death of George Floyd last year have filed a lawsuit against the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office.

Alecia Kirby and Carlos Cruz claim they were “attacked during daylight hours without cause by JSO officers” during protests in downtown Jacksonville.

Four others also filed a lawsuit after the protests and the Sheriff Office was ordered to pay $100,000 to settle.

Alexis Lawrence said she was sprayed with pepper spray during a protest in Jacksonville on May 31.

Lawrence said she was appalled when she heard about the bill being signed.

“This is a violation, or should be, a violation of our civil rights. Like it’s just ridiculous,” Lawrence said.

A spokesperson for the State Attorney’s Office said this about the new law:

“We echo what State Attorney Nelson told the community in June 2020 — we will continue to work with our partners to protect peaceful protests while holding accountable those who resort to violence and those who destroy property.”

Florida’s Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis voiced his support at the bill signing.

“This law makes civil protests, civil protests are ok. But it makes violent protests illegal in the state of Florida,” Patronis said.

But Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren says they already had the ability to prosecute crimes committed during protests. He believes the new law is likely to be challenged in the courts.

“This law leaves just enough wiggle room for people to abuse it, to criminalize the mere presence at an assembly where other people are doing something wrong. And that should concern anyone who cherishes the Constitution,” said Andrew Warren, Hillsborough State Attorney.

About the Author:

Kelly Wiley, an award-winning investigative reporter, joined the News4Jax I-Team in June 2019.