After two years in office, Sheriff Mike Williams has shown the willingness to listen.
Whether it’s taking part in crime prevention walks, speaking to Sheriff’s Watch groups or meeting with the Times-Union’s Editorial Board, Williams has been an active listener.
“Overall in the community there is a sense of people working together in Jacksonville that I have not felt in a long time,” he said. “It has a lot to do with the mayor (and) the City Council. We have great relationships across the board in city government and with state and federal law enforcement partners.”
Murders are modestly lower than at the same time last year. But there is still a frustrating level of violent crime in our city. And Williams will not be satisfied until there is a substantial reduction.
The gold standard in recent years was the 2011 time frame when murders were closer to 70 than 100. That also was a time when the number of police officers was at about 1,800 along with a strong cohort of community service officers.
When Williams came into office, there were 1,535 officers on street.
“That is a dangerously low number for a community our size,” he said.
Mayor Lenny Curry has added 40 officers and 40 community service officers each of his first two years in office with a proposal for another 100 positions in next year’s fiscal budget.
Meanwhile, JSO has moved aggressively to fill vacancies, which includes a wave of retirements.
By the time all 100 new officers are trained and added in two years, JSO will be closer to the 1,800 number. “This puts us in the game,” Williams said, “but (we’re) not exceptionally staffed.”
He also suggested it may be time to hire an outside consulting firm to conduct another staffing audit. The last one took place a decade ago in 2007.
Williams has been willing to listen as the Times-Union and others seek to obtain public records. He said “good first steps” have been taken — but added that “we still have a lot of work to do.”
Williams admitted that Downtown has less crime than other neighborhoods, but repeating that statistic often has little impact on citizens.
In recent visits to peer cities like Charlotte and Fort Lauderdale, he has noticed far more police Downtown than in Jacksonville.
“It doesn’t take a cop on every corner, but it takes more than we have,” he said.
Seeing police makes people feel safe, that doesn’t mean they are constantly writing tickets.
Jacksonville handles large crowds well. And it’s interesting that so little trouble often occurs during large events.
“There was not one complaint about the homeless during One Spark,” Williams said. “But (that’s because) you had people down there.
Williams added that our community must “quit talking bad about Downtown. … There were 3.5 million people who came Downtown last year for events. Our problem is day to day.”
During the Memorial Day weekend, there were multiple events including the jazz festival, an Armada match, Jumbo Shrimp games, concerts and patriotic ceremonies. In all, there were some 150,000 people Downtown — yet there was just one arrest for a misdemeanor citation.
HIRING AND RETENTION
As this editorial page has noted, JSO has stepped up hiring minorities. Nearly half of all new hires have been women and African-Americans, Williams said.
The proportion of black officers has risen from 11 percent to 19 percent. African-Americans represent about 30 percent of Duval’s population. The proportions of minorities are higher in the corrections field.
While there is wide support for cameras, details must be worked out. So that’s why JSO is conducting a pilot program with several vendors.
Feedback from officers has been mostly positive. JSO has looked at body camera policies in about 70 police departments and pulled the best practices that would work well here. But when to turn on the camera remains a key issue.
Of course, body camera video would be helpful in police-involved shootings. But could it have also been helpful during the recent incident involving the ticketing of a jaywalker — or during the encounter with a local minister who had window tinting that was too dark?
PROGRAM FOR YOUTH
Regarding a school system program (EVAC Movement) being considered for major changes, Williams said he’d love to see the program continue because it gives young men a chance to come in contact with city leaders.
Williams said he’s heard 17-year-old youths predict that they won’t live to be 25. “It’s crazy,” he said.
There is an impressive increase in the issuance of civil citations for youth that keeps them out of the criminal justice system.
“That whole restorative justice process, neighborhood accountability boards, I’m a big fan,” Williams said.
“I think there’s more impact to a juvenile going to a board than sitting in front of a judge for two minutes.”
Williams said he was open to creating dashboards to measure the department’s performance. But the statistics ought to be crafted with help from the community, he said.
Officers are receiving mental health first-aid training. Williams said this is a refresher since all officers receive such training in the police academy, including de-escalation training.
When families in a crisis call police, “We’re in a no-win situation. There’s got to be a better way,” Williams said.
“At the end of the day, it takes money and it’s a state and federal issue.”