Sheriff: Protecting victims trumps transparency

But Jacksonville's narrow interpretation of new state law might change later

By Jim Piggott - Reporter

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The narrow interpretation the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office has adopted for carrying out a victims' rights law passed by Florida voters will stand for now, the city's top cop told News4Jax -- but changes might come in a few months.

Sheriff Mike Williams said his department will continue to limit the information it releases to the media and the public about crimes occurring around the city in an effort to protect the victims of those crimes.

Floridians passed Amendment 6, which significantly expanded crime victims’ rights, last fall. Based on California’s Marsy’s Law, the amendment formed a crime victims’ bill of rights, which aims to keep victims both informed and protected.

Because of the wording of the law, law enforcement agencies have been left to themselves to interpret how to apply it.

Many local agencies have chosen to allow victims to opt out of having their information released to the public, but JSO has adopted a more limited policy of withholding information on victims of both violent and non-violent crimes, and in some instances, the department is also withholding where the crime occurred if the location could lead to the victim's identity.

First Amendment Foundation President Barbara Petersen said agencies across the state are struggling with the best way to implement the law in a state that places a high value on government transparency with its Sunshine Laws.

She pointed out that the agencies are having to balance the rights of crime victims with the need to inform the public for safety reasons.

“If law enforcement is withholding information, how am I supposed to do what I can to protect myself and my family if I don’t know what crimes are occurring in my neighborhood?” Peterson said.

As Williams finished the annual Torch Run for Special Olympics on Friday, he spoke with News4Jax about the policy changes and said that for now, they aren't going anywhere.

“When you talk about transparency -- victims’ rights trump that in my opinion,” Williams said, asserting that his agency is simply following the law voters approved.

But he added that the city could see changes later after the issue is addressed more fully by the Legislature and law enforcement agencies across the state have a chance to compare notes and come up with best practices. 

“I think the Legislature is going to take a look and you are going to have law enforcement agencies around the state get together this summer and that will be one of the topics, I am sure,” he said. “But until we get what I feel like is a better course, I think the current law is where we’re going to stand.”

Williams' administration has been touting transparency and openness within the department, particularly when it comes to making the public aware of officer arrests. But Marsy's Law has some citizens questioning whether police will be operating in a vacuum outside the accountability of being in the public eye.

“I think you would agree we’ve done a lot in the last five years to -- when we can -- go up and above to share and communicate, and we value (the media's) partnership, obviously, in being able to get information out to the public,” Williams said. “There’s always going to be challenges for that, and we've just got to continue to work through that.”

Victim advocates have told News4Jax this week that protecting the privacy of victims is the right thing to do because they didn't ask to be traumatized.

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