Sheriff unveils changes as protesters challenge budget

Published on July 20, 2023 at 11:37 am

Sheriff T.K. Waters rolled out changes in policing Wednesday that he said will make Jacksonville safer, but he also encountered protesters and questions from the public about the department’s growing budget.

Hundreds of people attended the sheriff’s first town hall meeting in the Prime Osborn Convention Center. He was questioned about the budget, police bodycams, officer misconduct, adult citations, a new jail and more.

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Outside, about 30 protesters waved signs saying “People’s Budget Now” and “Cap the Budget.”

Waters outlined two major initiatives:

New patrol zones

The city’s 25-year-old police zone system has been revamped into six new service districts, designed to better meet projected population growth. That means each officer has a more consistent workload, Waters said.

“A more even distribution of the workload will allow officers to respond more quickly,” Waters said. “It will give officers time to get out of their vehicles and walk around neighborhoods and have those very important person-to-person conversations with our citizens. This realignment will provide the fundamental tools by which we as an agency will build community partners and foster public trust, officer by officer and call by call.”

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The assistant chiefs for each new district were in the hallway outside to meet residents and show maps of the new districts, subdivided into smaller sectors. Each assistant chief handed out maps of the new districts with their name and phone number on it, as well as the names of officers, sergeants and lieutenants who patrol there.

Connect Duval

The new Connect Duval program invites owners of security cameras to register them with the Sheriff’s Office so investigators can more quickly review those images for potential suspect information. As some in the audience audibly reacted to that news, police Director Mark Romano said it was a voluntary program that keeps information private and lets the public help investigations with their “silent electronic witnesses.”

“If a crime incident occurs within the purview of these registers cameras, investigators can contact the camera owners and request access to recorded footage,” Romano said. “I want to emphasize that Connect Duval is a completely voluntary program with layers of privacy protection. The aim of this is not to create a surveillance state. Rather, it empowers citizens to contribute actively to the safety of their community.”

 Members of the Northside Coalition and Jacksonville Community Action Committee protest the budget of the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office. They then headed inside to hear Sheriff T.K. Waters speak at his first town hall meeting on Wednesday, July 19, 2023.

Members of the Northside Coalition and Jacksonville Community Action Committee protest the budget of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office on Wednesday, July 19, 2023. | Dan Scanlan, Jacksonville Today

Outside the meeting, protesters challenged the department $600 million proposed budget, a $7.8 million increase. The Sheriff’s Office is seeking to add 80 officers in the coming year.

“We are taking a look at the amount of resources that have been wasted not only at this event, but that just get wasted all the time at the Sheriff’s Office for there to be no decrease of crime, no improvement of the quality of life in our communities,” said Marcia Garcia, an organizer with the Jacksonville Community Action Committee. “We are just tired of it. We are just saying, at some point we have to take a look at why we keep giving these people more and more every year and not getting anything out of it.”

Other complaints arose inside the meeting. Members of the Interfaith Coalition for Action, Reconciliation and Empowerment, or ICARE, held up signs reading “130” — the number of people they said were murdered last year.

The group has pushed the current and past sheriff to implement an adult civil citation program for lesser, nonviolent offenses, instead of arrests that can leave people with a criminal record. Waters has said he won’t institute them, so ICARE treasurer Geneva Pittman said they will continue to lobby him for them.

Members of the Interfaith Coalition for Action, Reconciliation and Empowerment hold up the number

Members of the Interfaith Coalition for Action, Reconciliation and Empowerment hold up the number “130,” to signify the number of homicides recorded last year by the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office. | Dan Scanlan, Jacksonville Today

“We want to sit down and talk to him about the civil citations for adults,” Pittman said. “I know he said emphatically no, but we want him to listen to our reasons because he really doesn’t know what we are asking We are not talking about major crimes; we are talking about simple stuff like driving with suspended licenses or expired tags.”

In an interview later with Jacksonville Today, Waters addressed the issue of civil citations, which exist in other sheriff’s offices and which State Attorney Melissa Nelson supports.

“We are doing the right thing,” Waters said. “They just want me to do what they want me to do, and I have experts here and we are doing it the way it should be done. No civil citations for adults. For juveniles, of course.”

He also explained the department’s budget request, which he said is absolutely needed because of increasing costs.

“Inflation happens,” Waters said. “When you have a bunch of officers who are here getting step raises, you have to pay them. We are not even top paid in the state — we are at the bottom of every big city in this state. But we have to pay our police officers, and all we are doing is paying them and asking for more for the increase.”

More than 700 people attended the 40-minute town hall meeting, including Mayor Donna Deegan and City Council members, plus about 200 police officers standing around the crowd,

Waters spent about 20 minutes answering 14 questions submitted by the audience, joking that “now it’s time for the fun part.”

The first question asked whether the Sheriff’s Office will team more state-certified mental health clinicians with police officers to help smooth emotionally charged situations involving mental illness or substance use, so some people get counseling instead of jail. Waters said they are working now “to build a stronger response team.”

“We partner very heavily with the Mental Health Resource Center to make sure that we can build that, and we will continue to do that,” Waters said. “There is an entire part of our population that deals with mental illness, and not all of them deserve jail.”

A question from the Northside Coalition asked how and when citizens can review bodycam video of incidents involving officers. Waters said he already shares videos as quickly as he can because “it is important for you to understand that there is nothing to hide.”

“It is on our transparency site. If it’s not on our transparency site, you have the right to do a public records request and get that,” Waters said. “Not only that, when an officer is involved in an incident that rises to a level, whether it’s an officer-involved shooting or an incident of great public concern, I will show it to you.”

The sheriff was asked why he is against police accountability, which he disputed. He said he holds police officers “to a higher standard than most citizens are.” No one hates a bad police officer more than he does, he said.

“We are given a gun and a badge,” Waters said. “We can take someone’s freedom; in extreme situations, we can take someone’s life. If you misbehave in the Sheriff’s Office, you will be dealt with accordingly. That’s my responsibility,”

Other questions dealt with the need for a new jail, what his department is doing about illegal drugs like fentanyl and how they will solve homicides.

According to Sheriff’s Office data, Jacksonville had 157 total violent deaths in 2022, 136 of them homicides. So far this year, the Sheriff’s Office reports 54 violent deaths, 47 of them homicides.

 The Jacksonville Sheriff's Office unveiled a new paint scheme for its police cruisers, changing the decade's-old white with blue and white stripe.

The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office unveiled a new paint scheme for its police cruisers, changing the decade’s-old white with blue and white stripe. | Dan Scanlan, WJCT News

Also Wednesday, the Sheriff’s Office unveiled a new paint scheme for vehicles — silver paint with white graphics, ditching the familiar white with blue and yellow stripe that has decorated them for decades.

The first two were given to the two officers who transported Officer Malik Daricaud to a hospital after he was critically shot in March.

Current vehicles will retain their white colors. The new colors will be used as vehicles are added to the fleet.

author image Reporter, WJCT News 89.9 email Dan Scanlan is a veteran journalist with almost 40 years of experience in radio, television, and print reporting. He has worked at various stations in the Northeast and Jacksonville. Prior to joining the WJCT News team, Dan spent 34 years at The Florida Times-Union as a police and current affairs reporter.

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