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Investigations into officer wrongdoing plummet following the adoption of body cams

Are officers changing how they act on camera, or do body cams disprove baseless complaints? Maybe both.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The number of investigations into allegations of serious police misconduct in Jacksonville has dropped dramatically since the introduction of body-worn cameras.

According to figures from the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, the number of officer complaints that became formal Internal Affairs investigations dropped by 61 percent between 2018 and 2020 – the period in which JSO adopted body cams.

IA investigations can result in suspension, demotion, or termination. They are cases that require investigation because the charges are serious, and they can’t be administratively dismissed.

In 2018, 877 of a total of 1,164 complaints from citizens, jail inmates and fellow officers “necessitated further review,” according to JSO data – about 75 percent.

In 2020, that dropped to just 29 percent. IA investigated just 316 out of 1,084 total complaints.

Steve Zona, president of the Jacksonville chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, says other agencies in Florida have seen similar declines. “The biggest factor, I believe, and most people believe, is the body-worn cameras,” he says, “because they do exonerate police officers from the very beginning.”

Zona says the cameras expose baseless complaints.

“I know a lot of people say, ‘Well, maybe the body-worn cameras are affecting the officers’ behavior.’ I think the studies have shown that they have a negligent effect on the officers’ behavior.”

First Coast News Crime Analyst Mark Baughman thinks it's likely a balance between changing police behavior and the evidence body cams provide.

“It does benefit for the officer if they've done nothing wrong,” he says. “I also think the officer acts differently while knowing that they have a body camera on them. They maybe are using a little more tact and good demeanor, knowing that they're being recorded.”

JSO Lt. Brad Shivers, who oversees Internal Affairs, says determining what’s driving the decline can be “a little subjective.”

“Without a doubt, our rudeness complaints have dropped significantly. So that's one where, yeah -- I would say you could point to the officer probably being more mindful of the way they speak to a citizen in a stressful situation or something like that.”

At the same time, almost a third of complaints from citizens or jail inmates were dismissed last year because of conflicting body camera footage.

Even though IA is investigating fewer cases, Shivers says it’s important to note that officer discipline has increased.

“I would never want the fact that Internal Affairs is investigating less cases to be twisted as if we're covering up misconduct,” he says. He contends IA investigations are actually more vigorous.  

“[Officer discipline] has increased exponentially, because we can actually see the misconduct occurring on camera. So while fewer cases are being investigated, we're handing out more discipline as an agency than we ever have before.”

Shivers says the number of officers choosing to quit or retire while under investigation has also jumped – from 17 before body cams to 27 last year. He says that’s a reflection of the strength of body cam evidence.   

“The actual footage of the misconduct they committed is there live for the administration to see,” he says. “So their inclination is not to try to wade through or fight the investigation.”

Community activist Ben Frazier, president of the Northside Coalition and advocate for greater police transparency, said focusing on the IA decline ignores a larger problem with JSO’s investigatory system. Frazier, who is recovering from COVID, sent a statement, that said in part, “Internal investigations are always questionable and always controversial. Whenever you have the fox guarding the henhouse, some of the chickens always end up missing!"

Because officers are investigating other officers, Frazier believes the process itself is untrustworthy. “After all, the investigators and those being investigated all drink beer, go bowling, and barbeque together. …The system of investigating allegations of police misconduct in Duval county is broken and we need a citizens review board to fix it."

 

Internal Affairs investigation data provided by JSO, with percent calculations by First Coast News:

In 2018, there were 1,164 total complaints received by the Internal Affairs Unit regarding employees (Police, Corrections, and Civilian). Of those 1,164 files, 996 were submitted by citizens and 168 were initiated by a JSO supervisor or other member. Following the preliminary review conducted by the Internal Affairs Unit, 877 of those complaints necessitated further investigation by either the member’s supervisor or by the Internal Affairs Unit

(75 percent of total complaints investigated)

During this period in 2019, there were 1,180 total complaints received by the Internal Affairs Unit regarding employees (Police, Corrections, and Civilian). Of those 1,180 files, 972 were submitted by citizens and 208 were initiated by a JSO supervisor or other member. Following the preliminary review conducted by the Internal Affairs Unit, 414 of those complaints necessitated further investigation by either the member’s supervisor or by the Internal Affairs Unit.

(35 percent percent of total complaints investigated) 

During this period in 2020, there were 1,084 total complaints received by the Internal Affairs Unit regarding employees (Police, Corrections, and Civilian). Of those 1,084 files, 879 were submitted by citizens and 205 were initiated by a JSO supervisor or other member. Following the preliminary review conducted by the Internal Affairs Unit, 316 of those complaints necessitated further investigation by either the member’s supervisor or by the Internal Affairs Unit.

(29 percent of total complaints investigated)