JACKSONVILLE, Fla — The Florida State Attorney's Office said it plans to release body camera footage from the officer-involved shooting death of Jamee Johnson once it completes its investigation and renders a decision on the investigation.
That was the concluding line of a three-page memo issued by State Attorney Melissa Nelson's office explaining current procedures when it comes to body-worn camera footage in officer involved shooting investigations, as well as laying out plans for future reform.
"Transparency, integrity and accountability are priorities of the SAO," the memo said. "We recognize that community trust and improved public safety cannot be achieved without a commitment to fairness and impartiality."
The memo said the SAO has recently received a "significant number of inquiries" regarding officer-involved shooting incidents and the release of BWC footage, from demonstrators, concerned citizens and media. It went on to explain current SAO policies, improvements made in 2017 and the intended reform yet to come.
Under SAO policy, when the agency's investigation into any police shooting is complete, all records in the case including any body camera footage becomes available to the public under Florida's Public Records Law. When the policy was reformed in 2017, the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office had a limited number of body cameras in use, which means the policy did not take into consideration the "complex issues attendant to the public release of body-worn camera footage," the memo said.
In late 2018, JSO rolled out body cameras for more officers quarter-by-quarter. By December 2019, all JSO patrol officers were outfitted with body cameras, the memo said. Since then, SAO has completed two officer-involved shooting investigations that include body camera footage.
"Recently, the public has demanded the immediate release of body-worn camera footage, prior to the conclusion of an officer-involved shooting investigation," the memo said.
One example of those demands is the outcry for answers in the shooting death of Jamee Johnson, a 23-year-old Florida A&M University student killed by a JSO deputy after being pulled over for a seat belt violation in December. His mother has been vocal in recent protests against police brutality.
The SAO memo said JSO advised it is legally prevented from releasing body camera footage before any administrative hearing of an officer who has fired shots, which happens after the SAO criminal investigation is complete. As a result, the memo said, SAO will determine the public release of body camera footage in police shootings.
"We strongly believe it is the duty of the SAO to share its decisions in criminal matters with the public and the underlying reasons for those decisions," the memo said.
It spelled out its current procedures for investigating police shootings in the Fourth Judicial Circuit as follows:
- SAO analyzes all police shootings within the judicial circuit to determine whether use of force was lawful.
- 11 assistant state attorneys rotate on an on-call basis for one month per year to respond to any police shooting scene in Clay, Duval or Nassau counties.
- SAO tries to determine how and why any police shooting occurred, but the identity of the shooter (which is often the focus of other shooting investigations) is not in question.
- In order to determine whether a shooting is considered lawful, SAO reviews evidence such as witness accounts, private surveillance video, radio traffic, forensic evidence and statements of the officer who fired shots. Since late 2018, in Duval County, the evidence may also include body camera footage.
- Witness accounts must be of their own accord in order to ensure the integrity of the evidence. For that same reason, any shooting officer is prohibited from viewing any body camera footage except for footage recorded by their own body camera during any officer-involved shooting investigation.
The memo then laid out a list of reforms made to the SAO officer-involved shooting investigation procedures in 2017:
- SAO established an internal team of experienced assistant state attorneys to respond to, review and evaluate every officer-involved death in the judicial circuit (the "OIS Review Team").
- SAO published a policy outlining procedures for handling officer-involved shooting investigations, but that did not define a deadline for completing those investigations.
- Under the policy, when an officer is involved in a shooting, either the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office or the Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigates the incident, then forwards the investigation report to the assigned assistant state attorney. That attorney then reviews and analyzes the shooting and writes a death investigation report.
- Once the death investigation report is prepared, the attorney presents a recommendation and preliminary conclusions to the OIS Review Team to serve as an additional check and balance to make sure the investigation is thorough and the conclusions are sound.
The memo said, "The multiple levels of review that each officer-involved shooting receives highlights the importance we attach to thorough, correct and reliable opinions rendered in these cases."
The memo went on to outline proposed reforms to the SAO officer-involved shooting investigation procedures, including the release of body camera footage, as follows:
- In addition to reviewing current practices, the SAO is working to create a policy for body camera footage during a police shooting investigation that will balance the integrity of investigative action and the public's right to transparency.
- SAO opportunities for improvement on current practices include determining a date by which body camera footage will be made available to the public in all police shootings.
- The agency also plans to solicit feedback from the community as part of the process in implementing the new body-worn camera policy.
"The SAO is working to bring the officer-involved shooting investigation of Jamee Johnson to conclusion and will make available the body-worn camera footage at the same time we render our decision and findings," the memo said.