A family walks into our office. The eyes looking at me are tired and full of tears. The brows are heavy. They want answers. They want to understand how their loved one can now be dead.
This happens several times a year in my office. Lately, I have seen an uptick in families who lost someone to the bullet of a police officer. Despite crime being down nationally, police-caused fatalities have significantly increased.
I was a criminal justice major and once considered an FBI career when I was in college. Instead, I became a lawyer. I respect the rule of law and hold the sanctity of life sacred. I have the utmost respect for the work that the men and women in state and federal policing do. However, we all have encountered people who are having a bad day, making a bad decision, or who are simply reckless, and statistics show the police might need policing.
According to Florida law, a law enforcement officer may use force that he or she reasonably believes is necessary to defend himself or herself or another from bodily harm while making an arrest. That subjective and broad standard has led to some staggering statistics. According to a Miami reporter who spent many months investigating, police “justifiably” killed 574 people from 1999 to 2013 in Florida alone — 41 people per year on average. The Miami-Dade Police Department had the largest number, with 70 reported justified homicides, followed by the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office with 42 cases. Both reported more fatal shootings per capita than any other law enforcement agency in the state, and lead many major cities per capita.
According to The New York Times, during the past 20 years, not one single officer has been charged in Florida with using unjustified deadly force in a police-involved fatality. (The Times relied on the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office for these data.)
So are we to conclude that every single fatal police shooting was appropriate and no Florida police officer has ever used excessive force? That is a statistical impossibility.
Making matters worse, these data are vastly unreliable and underreported. When an officer shoots someone, the agency’s homicide detectives investigate the shooting. Sometimes, it doesn’t even make it on the local news. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement can, but does not always, look over the local agency’s shoulder. The prosecutors depend on these officers to prosecute and win cases, and many officers are often witnesses in pending cases, so the standard for prosecution is different. It’s complicated, to say the least. Some might say it is simply dangerous.
Just this year, we have seen allegations of a JSO officer brandishing a gun over an argument about a parking space; seen a JSO officer fire upon a vehicle thinking the person had a gun (but quickly realizing he was wrong), which stemmed from the officer being suspicious because the father was rushing home to get his child an asthma treatment; and we’ve seen a routine JSO traffic stop result in an officer taking a life. Two of those cases are part my office’s caseload.
We urge the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office to institute the use of body cameras and microphones. Police departments in Los Angeles, New Orleans and Las Vegas are testing the technology. The New York Times cites studies showing a dramatic turnaround in use-of-force issues and complaints. These recording devices reduce the number of confrontations and keep police aware that Big Brother is always watching, well, Big Brother. Evidence from other studies seems to reinforce the notion that body cameras encourage good behavior all around. Most important, body cameras will provide answers to grieving families.
We urge the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, the City Council, Mayor Alvin Brown, Florida Legislature and the public at large to join this discussion. Whether department-wide or as a means to selectively monitor inexperienced officers or officers with histories, this technology needs to come to Jacksonville. Our city deserves it. Leading the nation in police homicides is not a statistic to be proud of.