Residents call for answers, and the sheriff's attendance, at police body camera meeting

The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office held a public forum Tuesday night to hear input on its proposed body camera program, but at least some residents are not holding their breath that the pending equipment will bring with it a new wave of transparency.

A group of about 80 people, predominantly black, gathered in the Milne Auditorium at Edward Waters College to express their concerns that the body cameras won’t actually move the needle on what they perceive as a lack of openness between the Sheriff’s Office and the city’s black communities. They also asked for the whereabouts of some notable no-shows, including Sheriff Mike Williams and Mayor Lenny Curry.

The question of attendance was first raised by Denise Hunt, who was critiquing the Sheriff’s Office for its use of a video at the beginning of the presentation that showed a black suspect chased down and apprehended by police officers. Hunt and other attendees said the use of that video in the demonstration furthered the stereotype that all criminals in Jacksonville are black.

“There is an unequal balance of portraying black criminals,” Hunt said, before adding abruptly, “By the way, where’s the sheriff at?”

Hunt’s observation drew cheers and applause. She added, “Where’s the mayor at? They should have been here.”

Lauri-Ellen Smith, the sheriff’s assistant, was in attendance. Director Tony Davis, who heads the Sheriff’s Office department of police services, promised to pass along any concerns to Sheriff Williams.

Other recurring concerns included the question of whether officers would be allowed to review body camera footage before writing reports and whether civil rights advocacy groups and the public will have the chance to shape policy on the use of the equipment.

Many residents said an underlying lack of trust with the Sheriff’s Office, which predates any body camera efforts, makes it hard for them to trust law enforcement as the sole possessors of the unedited body camera footage.

“The issue before us is not really about body cams,” said Ben Frazier, spokesman for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. “The issue is about trust. That’s what this is really about.”

Other civil rights groups showed up as well, including the American Civil Liberties Union, whose regional director Samir Gupte asked Davis why the Sheriff’s Office declined to create a community task force to streamline public input and better enable it to influence policy.

Davis responded that the Sheriff’s Office preferred the approach of holding public forums instead.

“It’s not limited to a task force, it’s open to anyone and everyone in the community that wants to come,” Davis said.

Before the question and answer session, details were presented to the public that echoed the first presentation by the Sheriff’s Office on its research and plans for a body camera program, which was given to the City Council a month ago. The sheriff attended that presentation.

The City Council update, however, was overshadowed after the police union president, Steve Zona, announced that he would be filing a complaint with the state agency that settles union disputes. Zona argued that the implementation of any body camera program would trigger collective bargaining with the union, contrary to what Sheriff Mike Williams announced at the City Council presentation earlier that day.

A week ago, the City Council unanimously approved a $2.7 million upgrade to the Sheriff’s Office’s internet technology equipment in preparation for the body camera pilot program.

Ben Conarck: (904)359-4103

© 2017 WTLV-TV


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