JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Local attorney John Philips created a viral controversy when he publicized the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office response to his wide-ranging public records request. The $314,000 price tag for records on troubled cop Tim James ignited a social media firestorm.
But the story was just one of several headlines concerning local law enforcement compliance with public records laws.
Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams held a hastily scheduled press conference late in the day Wednesday to try to explain the exorbitant public records estimate.
He suggested the initial estimate wasn’t meant to be taken seriously.
“We expect him to come back and say, that’s crazy. “Williams described the estimate as a conversation starter – a way to get a requester to narrow and refine a request," he said.
But cost isn’t the only barrier. JSO’s failure to provide public records also resulted in a mistrial Wednesday.
Russell Tillis, accused of assaulting a law enforcement officer, will now have to be retried after it became clear JSO didn’t turn over to prosecutors all the information requested by Tillis’ lawyer.
Not only was that information not turned over, as required by law, it wasn’t clear if the documents had been destroyed.
Defense attorney James Boyle said he believed the so-called CAD reports still exist. But Prosecutor Thomas Mangan admitted they simply didn’t know.
“I do not know. I can’t say with 100 percent certainty whether there were or were not ever [CAD reports]," Mangan said.
Judge Mark Borello made no attempt to hide his exasperation.
“How can that be unknown at this point? I don’t I don’t understand. I’m having a hard time understanding how we arrived at this point," he said.
It’s not the first time Boyle encountered this problem. As reported in a joint investigation by the Florida Times-Union and First Coast News, his client Jerome Hayes spent 589 days in jail on armed robbery charges -- despite the fact that both prosecutors and the police knew a year earlier his brother was the likely perpetrator.
“The tragedy was this was only discovered after Jerome had been in jail 19 months,” Boyle said at the time.
That investigation uncovered and even bigger public records mistake: The Sheriff’s Office wasn’t even archiving emails, a violation of state Sunshine Laws.
Even before this week’s developments, Times-Union editor Mary Kelli Palka was concerned about JSO’s public records policies. She had previously scheduled a meeting with the sheriff Monday.
“I’ve had concerns about our access to public records in the past few years with the Sheriff’s Office, and I didn’t feel like it was getting better," she said.
Williams said that recent events have been a learning experience, and admitted that his agency could do a better job communicating about public records.
“Communication would be a good piece of this," Williams said. "Could we learn a little something in customer service? Yes.”
Mary Kelli says she believes the sheriff wants to improve his agency’s performance. But she also thinks continuing to challenge JSO might be the best cure.
“Sometimes it takes us pressuring and asking them many times for the records before we find out that there might be actual problem with the process – in keeping or getting them to us. And that’s just important to work out," Kelli said.