Use of Force rises amid a year of civil unrest and crime spikes

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — In a year with a high murder rate, as well as a high number of officer-involved shootings and uses of force from officers, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office has been under intense scrutiny.

A Citizen Review Board overseeing JSO has been proposed by City Council members that would oversee internal investigations, cases and issues of interest to the city, and make recommendations to the City Council regarding JSO’s handling of investigations. While this proposal is still in committees, the need for oversight of the Sheriff’s Office has been called for by many social justice organizations.

Last year, WOKV published an investigation into how JSO used force when conducting arrests and responding to incidents. We found that between 2015 and 2019, JSO’s use of force has increased by nearly 61 percent. Between 2012 and 2019, the use of force increased by 70 percent.

Now those numbers for 2020 have been published in the Open Data Report for 2020. The report details the use of force (response to resistance) police officers used over the past year. That report encompasses the protests and riots that happened in the early part of the summer and a rise of crime over the year.

WOKV sat down with JSO Director Michael Bruno, who has been with the agency since 1994, to discuss the impact 2020 had on the Sheriff’s Office. Bruno has overseen the Department for Patrol and Enforcement, the Department of Corrections and now serves as Director of Investigations and Homeland Security.

In 2020, there were 142 murders and 27 homicides, according to JSO’s transparency page. The year before shows 130 murders and 30 homicides. JSO Director Michael Bruno says there was a nine percent increase in violent crime, mostly driven by aggravated batteries.

With the pandemic and the number of protests and riots over the year, Bruno said that he was proud of how his team handled the challenge 2020 posed.

“I’m extremely proud of the men and women at the agency to rise to the level and to the challenges that they did,” Bruno said. “It’s uncharted waters. Nobody has been through anything like this in their careers.”

USE OF FORCE

While the number of incidents went down between 2020 (533 incidents) and 2019 (553 incidents), the force used by officers increased by 14 percent over the same period.

Over 1,000 uses of force were reported in 2020. 587 instances were physical force while 357 instances were the use of a taser. In 2019, 878 uses of force were reported in 553 incidents.

When analyzing the types of forces, officers used firearms, tasers, and physical force more in 2020 than each of the previous three years.

“So in the 533 incidents, there were a little over a thousand applications of force. And I mean, that could be because multiple applications of force by one officer, if he gets there and it’s a hands-feet-fist because somebody is fighting and then it escalates to a taser. Those are two applications right there that are wrapped up in that lower number of incidents. And it may have something to do with the number of officers that are at the scene. So there’s a lot of factors that weigh into that. So to just say that we’re applying more force isn’t a true comparison or a real reflection of what might be going on,” Bruno told WOKV.

According to a 2020 Year in Review report by JSO, force was used in 0.07 percent of all police/citizen interactions and in 2.10 percent of all arrests.

Out of the 38 times an officer used a firearm in 2020, 13 officers shot someone. Nine officer-involved shootings were fatal. Of those nine, the State Attorney’s Office found six fatal shootings were justifiable. Three shootings are still being determined.

One of those shootings that are still being reviewed is the death of 18-year-old Devon Gregory. Gregory was pulled over in a traffic stop on November 17. For almost 19 minutes, officers tried to convince Gregory to pull his right hand out from under the passenger seat and to get out of the vehicle. He refused to do so.

Body camera footage of the event has been released from one officer’s perspective. In the final moments of the footage, Gregory is heard shouting for officers to leave him. Moments after, what sounds like a gunshot can be heard, as Gregory’s head and body begin to move backward. Officers then begin firing their guns. Shots ring out for about four seconds.

A Medical Examiner has determined that Gregory suffered from self-inflicted gunshot wounds. A handgun was found in the car, according to police. However Gregory’s family still have questions about the shooting.

“We are going to get justice,” Aunt Teanay Gregory said during Devon’s Celebration of Life. “We are going to make things better and we’re going to live through this we’re gonna fight every day if we have to.”

According to the family’s attorney, a second autopsy shows Gregory was shot 13 times, including four times in the head, and the attorney said Gregory was bitten by a K-9.

WHY IS FORCE USED BY AN OFFICER?

As with most years, many officers cite overcoming resistance as a primary reason for force. Following that is protecting oneself, protecting other officers, and protecting citizens.

A total of 667 officers were involved in the use of force incidents in 2020 compared to the over 700 officers in 2019 and 2018. A majority of officers involved had less than 5 years of experience and were between the ages of 26 and 35 years old.

Bruno says that each incident is different.

“We look at each application of force of each of those incidents, that’s when you really get a good feel for ‘are we doing what’s right or are we doing what’s best?’” Bruno told WOKV. “And in those situations where there’s a need for training or additional training or some type of corrective action, we take it. But by and large, when we look at the individual cases, we realize it’s an appropriate application of force.”

One JSO officer was arrested in 2020 for abusing use of force. Former Officer Matthew Alimurung was arrested on November 13 for allegedly hitting a person in the head and in the face with a taser while the person was in custody.

“At the termination point of a vehicular pursuit for various traffic charges, the officer in question while taking a subject into custody used his taser as an impact weapon on or about the head region and the face region, which is outside of our policy. So, for that, he is being charged with a second-degree felony, aggravated battery,” Undersheriff Pat Ivey said at the announcement of the arrest.

Ivey said that the officer was not truthful in his documentation of use-of-force and body camera footage contradicted Alimurung’s claims. Alimurung is being charged with aggravated battery, which is a second-degree felony, and a public servant falsifying official documents. He has pleaded not guilty to both charges and his case is going through the Duval Court system.

Bruno tells WOKV that there are several departments that review reports by an officer when they use force.

“So when an officer applies force, there’s a supervisor, a sergeant that goes to the scene, reviews it, the officer fills out a form, fills out a report that then goes to the lieutenant. The assistant chief is also aware of that. It then goes into a queue to our RTR coordinator, who then looks at that. And based on certain criteria and their review -  beyond the chain of command review - will pull it to an administrative review if it meets that criteria,” Bruno said. “So it’s getting a chain of command review. It’s getting an administrative review and then an administrative review if it’s warranted. That’s not including the ones that go to the RTR board, like the officer involved shootings or if there was a significant injury or death. That’s why I say we really scrutinize the reports and incidents more than people probably realize.”

SUMMER PROTESTS

On May 30 and May 31, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office responded to protests in Downtown Jacksonville and surrounding neighborhoods. In those two days, 83 people were arrested according to JSO’s After-Action report. Seven officers reported minor injuries, and one required emergency treatment after being stabbed in the neck, according to JSO.

The report details that the peaceful protest scheduled for May 30 ended at 5:30 p.m. when people started to block East Bay Street. The report details that 500 people were at the protest and “the overall demeanor was hostile.”

When the officer was injured, and after people from the protest started to throw rocks, water bottles, and bricks at police, JSO started to warn people to leave or they would be be subject to arrest. The report states that 200 protestors remained in the area after this warning.

Commanders ordered the deployment of CS gas twice. After the second deployment of CS gas by the Florida Theatre on Newnan Street and Forsyth Street, protestors finally dispersed. The report says that no one was injured by the CS gas.

However, protestors from the May 30 protest are suing the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office and Sheriff Mike Williams, saying that officers attacked them and used excessive force. Court documents say that’s when Alecia Kirby was pinned to the ground, an officer kicked her in the face and slammed her on the pavement, causing her to lose consciousness and get a concussion. The lawsuit also says that Carlos Cruz was attacked by officers and one officer choked and slammed Cruz to the pavement, injuring one of his knees.

Kirby and Cruz were charged with unlawful assembly; their attorney says the charges were dropped.

The lawsuit is ongoing in the courts.

There were three main issues JSO did note in the report from the way they handled the May 30 protest. There was a lack of communication of probable cause for arrest between officers, increased difficulty to identify officers who developed probable cause for arrest, and there wasn’t documentation of the event. The videographer for JSO did not fulfil his duties, commands to activate body-worn cameras and other radio transmissions were not sufficiently documented.

Director Bruno could not comment on the protests because of the pending litigation.

POLICY CHANGES

Since the protests, body-camera footage has been released in several officer-involved shootings and the State Attorney’s office has created a new policy that would allow the release of body-camera footage to be within 30 days of an officer-involved shooting, barring it from hurting the investigation.

Bruno says that since the implementation of the body-camera policy, he believes that it works well and gets the community what they want.

“We’ve had the opportunity to roll out some video and really reduce the amount of time and the angst for the community of what did happen, because at the end of the day, we draw our authority from the community. So we want to be responsive to the community’s needs and what they desire,” Bruno said.

After the interview with Bruno, WOKV learned that JSO has started to strip names of officers in police shootings from its transparency page and will no longer release names of officers in officer-involved shootings. This is due to a new constitutional amendment by Marsy’s Law that expands to include officers.

When asked about body-camera footage being released, Bruno did say that they are also looking out for officers and their wellbeing.

“And so we have to be really mindful of the officer and make sure that they’re aware ‘hey, listen, this is coming out. Your family needs to be prepared. You know, have you had an opportunity to look at it.’ You really have to take care of the officer,” Bruno said. “We want to be transparent, but we don’t want to damage the officer or their family long term. So it’s a little bit of a balance there. And we manage that on this end.”

COMMUNITY IMPACT

A community survey was done last year through the UNF Public Opinion Research Lab and found that out of 1,115 people surveyed, 70 percent approved how JSO is handling its job. Zones 2 (Arlington/Intracoastal West), 3 (Southside/Mandarin/San Marco), and 6 (Northside/ San Mateo/Oceanway) had the highest approval rates while Zone 1 (Downtown/Springfield/Eastside) had the lowest approval rate.

Black respondents also had a lower approval rate of JSO than white or Hispanic respondents.

According to JSO records, there were 62 investigations into allegations of unnecessary use of force in 2020. 45 cases were not formally investigated based on the initial review of information gathered by Internal Affairs, which “clearly showed officers were within policy.” Nine cases were exonerated and seven were classified as not sustained. Only one complaint was classified as sustained.

Ten bias-based profiling complaints were filed with JSO in 2020. Zero were sustained.

Bruno says that he believes JSO is taking the necessary step and reaching out to the community.

“We are engaged at every level that we can within the community and we hope to have open and honest conversations at every level in the community,” Bruno said. “We’re sitting right now a couple of times a month with the Safer Together Council committee. I’m the sheriff’s representative there and we have open conversations.”

The Safer Together committee meetings were organized by Council Members Michael Boylan and Joyce Morgan to help facilitate dialogue between City Council, JSO, and the public on five main issues: Community Policing, JSO’s Policies and Programs, JSO’s Budget, Diversionary Programs, and Hiring and Recruitment.

The meetings are scheduled to end on June 30.

Hannah Lee

Hannah Lee is a General Assignment Reporter for 104.5 WOKV.

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