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Prosecutors flag 2 cases after bodycam debunks Jacksonville officer's version of events

Jacksonville Sheriff’s Officer claimed suspects in two cases resisted with violence, but prosecutors say body cam footage shows he was the aggressor.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — A Jacksonville officer with history of confrontational traffic stops was flagged by local prosecutors last year after police body cam footage contradicted his version of events.

A March 2022 email from the chief assistant state attorney to then-Jacksonville Undersheriff Pat Ivey noted “inconsistencies” in two unrelated cases in which Officer Justin Peppers claimed a suspect resisted with violence. In reality, prosecutors say, Peppers instigated the violence.

“Officer in both cases appears to assert initial aggression, and then charges resisting with violence,” the email said.

Ivey forwarded the email to a lieutenant and sergeant in Internal Affairs, asking for the reports and body cam, but there’s no record of any further investigation or discipline. The State Attorney’s Office did not file the resisting with violence charges in either case. But despite raising concerns about the officer’s reliability, the prosecutor’s office has continued to call Peppers to testify in criminal cases under oath.

“He needs to be stopped,” said Shuronda Hester, whose case was one of those flagged by prosecutors. “He almost had me a felony. He’s messing with people’s lives.”

First Coast News Crime and Safety Analyst Mark Baughman watched the bodycam and reviewed Pepper’s reports in the two incidents. “It looked like, at least according to what I viewed on the body cam, and what I read in the report, that Officer Peppers may have instigated or started the aggression,” Baughman said. “That that's the concern: that he's playing the aggressor here, and someone is not actually resisting at that point.”

As First Coast News has previously reported, Peppers has a history of confrontational traffic stops. In 2021, a couple he ticketed for excessive tint three times in two months accused him of stalking and harassment. The couple called 911 on Peppers twice, and even obtained a restraining order against him, before a judge rescinded it days later.

In December, a local military veteran accused Peppers of racially profiling him and using excessive force after he was pulled from his car during a November traffic stop.

Neither case resulted in discipline for the officer.

First Coast News reviewed Peppers’ Internal Affairs history, which includes 21 complaints from both inside and outside the agency since the start of ’21. Only three complaints were “sustained” following an investigation, and none resulted in significant discipline.

But just the volume of complaints filed can be an indicator of a problem. The Sherriff’s Office has an early warning system designed to flag potentially problematic police officers. When an officer is involved in three or more incidents that “could indicate the need for intervention efforts” within a three-month period, a report is automatically generated and sent to the officer’s supervisor. 

Qualifying triggers include misconduct allegations, chargeable vehicle crashes, use of force and a high frequency of arrests with “resisting” charges.

According to the policy, when an officer generates three such reports in a 12-month period -- meaning at least nine individual incidents in a year -- the Professional Oversight Unit is supposed to consider an intervention.

Peppers met that criteria two years in a row. Since March 2019, he's been flagged by the early warning system nine times. There were 24 incidents including three crashes, four allegations of misconduct, and 16 uses of force. (One incident is redacted, JSO citing an “active criminal investigation.” It’s not clear if Peppers is the subject of the investigation or if it’s just a pending criminal case.) 

JSO did not respond to questions about whether the Professional Oversight Unit has considered or implemented any intervention efforts with Peppers. However, records obtained by First Coast News show three "Personnel Early Intervention" meetings between Peppers and his commanding officer September 2022, October 2021 and February 2021. 

Each form includes the question "Is there anything you feel you can do differently to reduce the number of (RTRs, complaints, crashes, pursuits, off duty/overtime hours being worked, etc.)?" 

Each time Peppers checked "no."

First Coast News asked the State Attorney’s Office whether identifying Peppers’ as an unreliable narrator in two police reports disqualifies him as a state witness, and if he should be placed on the office’s Brady List of troubled officers. 

A spokesperson responded, “When a prosecutor views body-worn camera footage that implicates behavior that may warrant review by JSO’s professional standards, we share that information with JSO. In this case, we understand that the Sheriff’s Office is conducting a review of the concerns we brought forward. It would be premature to speculate on any further action until JSO completes that review.”

Baughman thinks the officer is signaling with his behavior and that his superiors need to take notice.

“He's working in a high crime area. And he's dealing with people that are non-compliant. So what do you do as a supervisor? What do you do as an agency with someone like Officer Peppers? Is he a bad police officer? No, I don't think he's a bad police officer. He's trying to do his job. But maybe, just maybe he needs a change of environment for the time being until they can maybe address it with some form of intervention or counseling.”

Baughman suggests that Peppers may be growing “jaded” but says he needs to find better coping strategies when situations grow confrontational.

“He's got to deal with facts that people are potentially going to be non-compliant in these situations. And he's got to address it in a certain way where it doesn't always mean you have to slam somebody on the hood of a car.”

Below are the two incidents flagged by prosecutors as problematic.

Incident #1 

Shuronda Hester, 22, was stopped in December 2021 for excessive window tint. During the stop, the primary officer smells marijuana and asked both Hester and her passenger to get out. Hester willingly submits to being searched – “I can take my jacket off if you need me to,” she offers – but after about 10 minutes of waiting she begins demanding her phone back. 

“You cannot tell me I can’t have my phone,” she says, saying she’s going to go get it. She doesn’t make any move in that direction, but Peppers tells her he’s going to put her in handcuffs. 

She turns around, wrists behind her, but continues criticizing Peppers over her right shoulder. Peppers grabs her left sleeve to straighten her out and she spins to the left, knocking his hand off of her arm. 

“Fuck, don’t grab on me like that,” she says. Hester then turns back around, hands behind her. "You’re definitely going to jail now,” Peppers says. “That’s called BOLEO [battery on a law enforcement officer], ma’am.”

Hester misunderstands. “Bully?” she asks, turning toward him, “I didn’t even”

At that point Peppers screams, “Put your f**king hands behind your back!” He grabs her hair and brings her head onto the hood of his car with force. She screams and clutches at her hair. He punches her in her right side “as a distractionary technique” then cuffs both hands. 

Hester, who didn’t want to be interviewed on camera for this story, told First Coast News the she was traumatized by the incident. She noted she’d suffered prior head trauma from a severe case of encephalitis and said she felt abused. “I do have bad anxiety, any time an officer is behind me,” she said. “Nobody should have a felony because of Officer Peppers. If anybody has a felony it should be thrown out.”

Hester’s felony was thrown out. The charge of resisting with violence – a third degree felony -- was reduced to misdemeanor resisting without violence. That and the marijuana possession charge were resolved with through a pretrial diversion program. The illegal tint charge, the reason for the original stop, was dismissed. 

Incident #2

Eighteen-year-old Ja’varius Bell was riding a scooter downtown in March 2021 when Peppers pulled him over for obstructing traffic. Peppers demands his ID: “Give it to me,” Pepper said. Bell replies, “I’m going to just show ya, I ain’t going to give it to you.” 

“Do you have any weapons?” Peppers asks moving toward him.

“Naw,” Bell says, stepping out of Peppers' reach, “and don’t search me either, boy.”

Peppers alerts his radio. “He’s about to fight me," he says.

Bell, whose has his back to Peppers and is wheeling his scooter away from the officer, starts to say “I’m not..” when Peppers pushes him against his car. “Put your f**king hands against the car,” he says, before pulling Bell to the ground by his hair. “Lay down,” he commands. “Lay flat right now.”

“Go ahead, bro,” Bell responds. Giving Peppers his hands to be cuffed. 

Peppers arrests him for resisting with violence, failure to ride the right curb and failure to obey a traffic sign. Prosecutors dropped all three charges the next month.

"There is not evidence to support the contention that [Bell] was imminently about to flee," prosecutors wrote in their Disposition Statement in the case. "Additionally, the characterization of the report that [Bell] "rushed" the officer is unfounded, as the Officer took the defendant by surprise when restraining him. A brief struggle ensued, where there is no evidence to support the contention that [Bell] willfully employed violence with an intent to harm the officer as a means of resistance."



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