Sheriff's Office needs to balance victims' rights with informing public, sheriff says

Jacksonville's narrow interpretation of new state law being reviewed this week

By Jim Piggott - Reporter

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The Jacksonville Sheriff's Office needs to strike a better balance between informing the public about crimes and safety concerns and protecting crime victims, Sheriff Mike Williams said Monday.

Williams said he watched over the weekend as limited information was provided in several cases of public interest, including a homicide reported on McQuade Street and a little boy who wandered away from his home.

That lack of information was part of a recent policy shift within the Sheriff's Office, which has opted for a narrow interpretation of a victims' rights law passed by Florida voters last fall.

Amendment 6, based on California’s Marsy’s Law, formed a crime victims’ bill of rights, which aims to keep victims both informed and protected, but law enforcement agencies have been on their own for how to apply the law.

Many have chosen to allow victims to request their information not be released publicly, but the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office has instead adopted a more limited approach of withholding not only victims' identities but also the locations of some crimes if those locations could lead to the victims' identities.

Williams asserted last week that he viewed protecting victims as a higher priority than transparency but acknowledged that the policy might be tweaked once agencies have a chance to get guidance from the state and each other on best practices.

After the weekend's events, however, Williams told News4Jax at a ceremony marking the start of Crime Victims' Rights Week that changes could come as early as this week.

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“We are going to meet this week about maybe cleaning some of that up a little bit,” Williams said. “We do have to balance -- you have to let people in the community know what is happening and you've got to be able to get information out, but you've got to do it in conjunction with the victim and the victim’s family to make sure they understand what is going to happen.”

Beverly McClain, whose son's body was pulled from the Ribault River 14 years ago, said having news coverage about her son's death -- which has never been solved -- helped her.

But she understands the need for Marsy’s Law and why other victims' families might not agree to have their information released to the public.

“I am praying that whichever way it goes, it works out,” said McClain, who now runs Families of Slain Children, an organization that aids crime victims.

Williams said he will have more information later this week about how his department will handle Marsy’s Law moving forward.

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