Cindy Taylor recalls urging her son to not plead guilty.
But, at the age of 17, he feared he would spend the rest of his life behind bars if he did not.
"Momma, I am scared," Taylor remembers him saying. "I will get out in 20 or 30 years. At least, I will get out. If I go to trial and lose, they told me I will get life without parole."
Apprehended as a juvenile and tried as an adult, in March 2009, Kenneth Drotar received a sentence of 20 years at Florida State Prison in Raiford, for felony murder. It's a charge that is given to defendants who commit "imminently dangerous" crimes—such as robbery, arson or sexual battery—that result in death, even if they are not the killer, and even, as in Drotar's case, if their co-conspirator was killed by the cops.
For Drotar, whose mugshot depicts a brooding young man with shaved head and gentle stubble, destiny spiraled along a bleak course, plotted with what Taylor perceives to be a streak of injustices.
Nearly a decade on, some of those same injustices persist, diminishing public trust in law enforcement. Matters like police abuse, especially toward black men, the burden of penury and crime, and the lost faith in fair treatment and representation, continue to shape a discourse—both national and local—that sees leaders and residents in disparate positions. While the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office (JSO) and State Attorney's Office (SAO) have taken steps to steer their institutions along a route of conscientious service, gaps continue to yawn, leaving cracks like the one Drotar slid down into.
On Nov. 24, 2008, 17-year-old Drotar and his 20-year-old friend, Cedric Smith, sneaked out of Taylor's home. Shortly after midnight, they mugged two women in a Walmart parking lot on Beach Boulevard. They then got into a chase with a police vehicle, ending when Smith smashed the car he had stolen several days earlier.
Drotar and Smith leaped out of that car and ran. After Officer Jose Gonzalez fired his weapon, Drotar surrendered. Smith, however, bolted in the dark to a nearby backyard. Officer Michael Mosley shouted for him to stop. Instead, Smith turned toward him and pointed a firearm, Mosley would later say. Mosley shot and killed Smith, who, it turned out, was carrying a BB gun.
Taylor's account of how the fateful night unfolded alleges dark intent beyond an officer's justifiable use of deadly force. "I even have the transcripts when the cops were interviewed and they say they planned on killing both boys," she said in a phone interview. Folio Weekly was unable to confirm the veracity of this claim.
After every police-involved shooting, SAO opens a case review, which JSO follows with an administrative investigation of its own. The aim of these reviews is to determine whether the use of lethal force falls within policy. Mosley's employee record, which lists one exonerated and two sustained allegations of improper action, does not mention the Nov. 24, 2008 killing of Smith. His actions were found justifiable.
Gonzalez's job history catalogs almost a dozen in-house and external complaints since 1997, as well as a response-to-resistance case for his actions on that night, sustained almost a year later. He received a five-day suspension.
Drotar, represented by a public defender, faced a murder rap. On the advice of his legal counsel, he entered a plea deal while it was still undecided whether he would be sentenced as an adult, a juvenile or a youthful offender.
The file of his initial sentencing hearing indicates that he accepted responsibility and felt remorse about the robberies. "They're not my ideas," he said of the robberies, "but I did go along with them, and I know I'm just as guilty for that."
In the documents, Drotar indicates that he followed Smith's lead, hoping to lessen the financial strain on his mother, who was raising three kids on her own. "He was a long-time friend of mine," Drotar said, "and my mom, she works seven days a week struggling to pay the bills. I thought it would be nice to be able to pay some of the bills."
Drotar's involvement in Smith's killing, however, presents a tangled matter. He could not escape the barreling car and did not help Smith flee officers. When the bullets struck his friend's body, Drotar was already in police custody. Yet today he's in prison for his murder.
Family and friends penned letters to Judge Arnold Charles, begging for leniency for Drotar. A teacher wrote about his academic success. His mother and grandmother chronicled Drotar's life without a father, the trauma of his grandfather's death and his search for a positive male role model.
A brief note of a doctor's evaluation, which is excluded from the public case file, references "mental health conditions suffered" by Drotar, and states he posed no risk and showed empathy.
The Florida Department of Juvenile Justice recommended that Drotar, who had an old traffic citation for a suspended learner's permit, be released to juvenile court for sentencing. Smith's family opposed charging Drotar for the killing of their son.
"They still threw the book at him," said Taylor. "There is no reason a child should be in prison from age 17, for 20 years, for something they didn't even do. It is just so sad. Everything that happened in this case is just unbelievable."
A decade later, Drotar remains behind bars, in a penitentiary in Santa Rosa County, some five hours from Jacksonville. Last year, Taylor, who receives $750 in monthly disability payments, visited him twice. The cost and distance wear on her. But so does her son's absence—in ways much more profound.
"It's a life sentence for me because I don't know how much longer I am going to live," she said. "It just breaks my heart. I want my kid back. He has been there long enough.
"Justice is all about money in America and unfortunately, I don't have any. There is nothing much I can do."
THE ROAD AHEAD
In the years since Drotar's case, some 90 police shootings have occurred in Duval County, according to The Florida Times-Union's database. Some were ruled to be justified. Some resulted in fatalities. In the last two years, JSO has investigated 138 cases for either excessive or necessary force, which includes shootings.
In late 2016, the Professional Oversight Unit, within JSO's Department of Personnel & Professional Standards, commenced with the goal of monitoring "high-liability components of the Sheriff's Office" (such as response-to-resistance incidents, on-duty injuries and vehicle pursuits) in order to stem potential policy violations, uphold proper conduct and facilitate training. To a similar end, Sheriff Mike Williams and Jacksonville City Council began taking steps toward implementing a body camera policy-albeit after a determined push by community leaders.
While JSO has already secured nearly $1 million for implementing the use of body cameras, such devices invite glitches. "Body cameras can lead to not just the surveillance of police officers, but surveillance of the communities," said Michael Sampson of the Jacksonville Community Action Committee, a black-led grassroots organization "fighting for justice and liberation."
The official evaluation of the pilot program, which started last summer with nearly 60 officers voluntarily donning body cameras, is anticipated this year. Concern for both citizens' and police officers' privacy is still an issue.
Since 2008, the SAO has also implemented new policies and started novel initiatives to establish a smart justice system. Since State Attorney Melissa Nelson took office in January 2017, juvenile projects have gained prominence. Just last week, her office and the sheriff's office jointly announced a program to restore driving privileges to people facing criminal charges for driving without a valid license. A Human Rights Division began work in 2017, looking at officer abuse allegations alongside human trafficking offenses, hate crimes and elderly maltreatment. So far, it has closed two recent police-involved cases, while two others remain open. For now, there is no indication that old cases will be re-examined.
"In just over a year, our office has begun strategic efforts to increase public trust in the work we do," said SAO Communications Director David Chapman.
These official endeavors, however, bring no peace to Taylor, who has agonized over Drotar's case. She keeps heaps of files and documents on it, searching for ways to correct what she believes to be mistreatment by police and the court.
THE WAYSIDE PITS
As laudable as their proactive focus is, the enhancements at JSO and SAO so far seem to have failed to appease citizens and activists. The wounds of injustice—real or perceived—heal slowly, and scars linger.
In an age of strong activism and a national discourse on law enforcement, however, the community is demanding accountability from those tasked with serving it. The Northside Coalition of Jacksonville has existed for a little more than a year but, in that short time, through demonstrations, letters and official complaints, it has grown into a vocal organization against social, racial and economic inequities.
"Our major policing concern over the past year has actually been the excessive use of violence from the sheriff's office," said Ben Frazier, founder and leader of the coalition. "We are very concerned about the racially disproportionate number of questionable police-involved shootings."
Since the murder of Smith, who was black, the T-U's police-shooting database has registered two-and-a-half times more altercations with black men than white men. Only a third of Jacksonville's population is African American, however. Asked for a racial breakdown of the police force and of suspects in investigated in excessive force cases from the last two years, JSO responded to Folio Weekly that no such delineation exists. JSO, however, maintains a public transparency dashboard, which documents only officer-involved shootings. It chronicles 27 incidents from July 2015 to November 2017, in which 70 percent of the 35 responding officers were white and 20 percent were black. African Americans constituted 63 percent of the suspects and whites made up 33 percent.
While not directly commenting on these statistics, Pastor Phillip Baber of the Interfaith Coalition for Action, Reconciliation & Empowerment (ICARE) expressed reservations about JSO's data collection and the ability to make use of that data.
"We need more transparency, we need accountability, we need to be able to have quick and easy access to data that demonstrates [what is happening with] bias-based instances, particularly instances of racial bias-are they going down, are they trending up?" he asked. "Until we have the ability to have access to that kind of data and be able to measure that sort of stuff, I just don't know that we are going to have real answer or it is going to be very difficult for us to be able to help restore that relationship of trust between communities of color and the police."
Recognizing a recurrent concern among its constituents about their interactions with the police, ICARE convened a committee to research the issue. At the end of April, at the annual Nehemiah Assembly, attended by both Sheriff Williams and State Attorney Nelson, the leaders of ICARE homed in on the matter, insisting on creating an easy-to-use data dashboard, populated with statistics on complaints about and crimes of JSO officers. While Williams and Nelson vowed to pursue the establishment of the online feature, neither committed to a firm deadline for its rollout, citing technical and data volume hurdles, as well as the need to prevent a false start.
Demands for impartial service in black and poor enclaves, for public education and warnings, rather than citations and fines, for petty crimes, also reverberated from the assembly stage as Williams and Nelson pledged their dedication to impart better and more equitable justice.
"One of the issues where we typically, historically-we, law enforcement, we, JSO-have got in trouble with the community has been around the area of enforcement," said Sheriff Williams. As a result, JSO has adopted a mission-critical method of devoting attention to the small number of citizens who trigger a large portion of the city's violence, he said.
"We like to use the analogy of fishing with a spear, not a net, because in doing that now, we are not going to drive a wedge between us and the very community we are sworn to serve and protect," he said at the Nehemiah Assembly, in a tone that struck Pastor Baber as a rare public expression of reconciliation. "We take that very seriously," Williams continued, "you will continue to see initiatives and operations that work to build trust, that are very strategic in their approach to enforcement and, again, to work to repair some of the damage that has been done over years and years and decades of bad practices not only in Jacksonville, but nationwide."
Nonetheless, fostering healthy relations between citizens and law enforcement agencies requires community participation. For Sampson of the JCAC, it necessitates public oversight of the police. The organization, together with several others, envisions a Jacksonville Police Accountability Council that would task citizens to independently investigate alleged police malpractice. A similar idea has taken hold in Chicago. (The powerful local police union has already indicated its opposition to this idea.)
"There needs to be an accountability measure like that in place to ensure that police officers have a deterrent that pushes them against misconduct that can restore that trust between the people and the police, so that people can feel they have accountability over the police that right now they do not," Sampson said.
Economically uplifting disadvantaged neighborhoods, where crimes fester and stir a mix of resignation and disdain toward the police, could be another means to address strained interactions. The connections among poverty, misdeeds and attitudes toward the police are not always apparent or acknowledged, Frazier said.
"There are many in the world of academia who might disagree that there is a connection between economics and crime," said Frazier, "but what I can tell you is, we have added on more police officers, we have added on more to police budgets and there has been no positive impact in terms of the reduction of crime. We need to do something different in terms of our tactics and our political strategies with regard to legislation and this very real connection between economics, education and crime."
JSO is aware of the intertwined nature among economic opportunities, crime and police perceptions. Assistant Chief Deloris Patterson heads Patrol Zone 5, a large and poor section of Northwest Jacksonville bracketed between the Duval/Nassau county line, Interstates 10 and 95, and the Trout River. It incorporates the 32208 and 32209 ZIP codes, which are notorious for their crime and poverty. Assistant Chief Patterson and the officers under her command cooperate with Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce as well as Zone 5 businesses to increase local employment.
"If we can help people get a job, then that is what we will do," she said.
Though Zone 5 has serious economic and social challenges, it also harbors what Patterson sees as a synergy between the community and the police. Through engagement activities, such as neighborhood walks and Big Brother/Big Sister friendships, she has made herself and her subordinates approachable, she said.
"I actually have people that send me information on my phone and say, 'Hey, this is information you want to follow up on because I believe this is the suspect,'" Patterson said. "I think this is a win, and I do not think we focus on that enough to say that we are having a great impact as far as building relationships with the community."
The dim spotlight on such positive communications may stem from the zeal of media outlets to report on controversies. Not all, but many media representatives-and not citizens-palaver about a drop in trust of police, said Steve Zona, president of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) Lodge 5-30. He pointed to a 2017 Gallup poll that placed Americans' confidence in police back up at its historical average of 57 percent after a three-year slump. Black adults' rate of trust, though, has slipped to 30 percent for 2015-'17, compared to 35 percent for 2012-'14.
"We have seen multiple cases gain national interest before investigations could be properly concluded, witnesses interviewed, and evidence vetted," he wrote in an email. "In nearly every one of these cases, officers' reputations are damaged and/or they are arrested, only to be cleared by a jury when all of the facts are known, only to learn later that their actions were completely justifiable and legal."
An honest dialog is necessary, Zona said. Community leaders, city officials and residents share his assertion. Yet Jacksonville remains divided, with long-held grievances, tough stances and disparate demands complicating the conversation.
It's a conversation that Cindy Taylor doesn't engage in beyond the implications for her son, Kenneth Drotar. Since his imprisonment, new, more considerate leadership has come to JSO and SAO. Change has also developed in regard to sentencing laws, such as the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling that sentencing juveniles to life without parole is unconstitutional-the very sentence Kenneth feared he'd receive unless he pled guilty.
Taylor has not yet found out how these developments could help her son. Today, at the age of 26, he has a decade more to serve for the killing of his friend, at the hands of the police.