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Jacksonville community rejects mayor’s police state budget

By Staff |
August 1, 2018
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Jacksonville, FL - Over the next month, the Jacksonville City Council will review and vote on Mayor Lenny Curry’s proposed $1.3 billion budget for 2018-2019. With mayoral elections less than a year away, Curry hopes his budget will pass the Council and pave the way for his second term in office.

 

Just days after its release, Curry’s proposal sparked widespread criticism from activists and community leaders for its staggering 7.5% increase in funds for the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office (JSO). Curry’s budget would allocate an additional $30 million in funds for the JSO, bringing their annual funding to $439 million - or 33% of the total budget for the City of Jacksonville. To put it another way, 33 cents of every dollar spent by the City of Jacksonville would go towards policing.

 

JSO operates with no effective accountability from either the state attorney or the city council. They don’t protect or serve the interests of Jacksonville’s majority, all while hustling hundreds of millions in tax dollars from working people every year. Instead of more funding, JSO needs to be placed under community control - and the city council can start that process by refusing to approve Mayor Curry’s budget proposal.

 

The fight over JSO’s budget

 

Last year, the city council approved Sheriff Mike Williams’ request for 100 new JSO officers, totaling $4.4 million. Activists and organizers from the Jacksonville Community Action Committee (JCAC), and a number of other community groups waged a campaign against Williams’ proposal, which brought dozens of people to speak out at city council meetings. Citing rampant police shootings and racial profiling of the city’s Black community, the “No New JSO” campaign called for accountability and community control of the police instead of more funding.

 

For decades, the JSO has enjoyed unquestioned power to demand more funding and get it, with little to no oversight from the city council. Challenged for the first time by community activists, Williams and Curry launched their own aggressive shakedown campaign to pressure the council into approving their request.

 

Privately and publicly, Williams and Curry put immense pressure on the city council’s Black members to vote in favor of the budget. Williams even dipped into his own political action committee to finance a sketchy poll of voters on the issue, which received criticism for its limited sample size and scope. 

 

Likewise, Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 530 president Steve Zona threatened activists online and launched a vicious smear campaign against suspended councilwoman Katrina Brown, who abstained from voting on the budget. Another African American councilmember, Reginald Gaffney, was stopped by JSO officers in traffic after leaving a city council meeting, which many saw as a racially motivated intimidation tactic.

 

Their intimidation worked. The city council approved the $4.4 million proposal unanimously. But the No New JSO campaign drew dozens of people into the larger fight for community control of the police in Jacksonville, led by the Jacksonville Community Action Committee (JCAC.) It exposed the city council’s blank-check approach to funding the JSO, and put Williams and Curry on the defense for the first time.

 

Rising violent crime rates despite more JSO officers

 

Mayor Curry and Sheriff Williams present two bogus claims to justify this $30 million funding increase for the JSO. On one hand, they claim that they need to hire more officers, buy new equipment and implement the latest technologies to fight crime and “keep the community safe.” On the other hand, they also brag that their policies have reduced crime in Jacksonville. It’s the same contradictory racket that sheriffs use across the country to get more funding for themselves - and of course, they say nothing of the rampant police crimes committed by the JSO.

 

But no matter how many times Curry and Williams - along with President Donald Trump, who they both support - drum up the boogeyman of rising crime rates to justify more police funding, it’s just not true. From 1993 to 2016, the violent crime rate in the U.S. dropped 74%, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. During the same period of time, Florida saw a 62.67% drop in crime – and a 64.3% drop in violent crime – despite a 50% population increase.

 

Jacksonville, however, is a different story. The city’s violent crime rate increased in 2017, despite the $4.4 million in funding for 100 new cops. Homicides rose 5.7% from 106 to 112. Aggravated assault increased 6.1% from 3,586 to 3,807. Most disturbing, rapes and sexual assaults spiked 7.5% from 540 to 581, with thousands of untested rape kits gathering dust.

 

JSO proved itself remarkably unable - and unwilling - to actually tackle violent crime. A disturbing report by News4Jax early in 2018 found that 70% of Jacksonville’s homicides in 2017 remain unsolved by the JSO. 

 

All of this took place in the same year and the year after Sheriff Williams and the Fraternal Order of Police shook down the city council for $4.4 million to hire 100 new officers. They were convinced that more cops would decrease crime and targeted anyone - activists or councilmembers - who questioned their claim. But it all amounted to an increase in violent crime in 2018 - even as crime rates fell across Florida - and a shockingly high percentage of unsolved murders.

 

Just this year in 2018, three black transgender women have been murdered along with another Black queer person with no arrests made in the deaths. Jacksonville accounts for a large percentage of the deaths of trans people in the country. 

 

JSO: Doesn’t protect the people, doesn’t serve the people

 

If they don’t reduce violent crime or solve murders, what does JSO actually do?

 

Through their Facebook page, JSO regularly brags about ‘sting operations’ and drug busts, ostensibly hoping to drum up public support. In reality, many of their ‘operations’ involve busting party-goers for minor drug possession or arresting low-income women and transgender people for sex work. 

 

Their boasts sometimes draw community backlash, like when JSO proudly posted a Facebook photo of marijuana and a single handgun seized during a police raid of a Riverside neighborhood home. Hundreds of comments blasted JSO for “wasting taxpayers’ money” instead of solving murders and rapes, including from self-described conservatives.

 

In March 2018, Sheriff Williams proudly announced to local media that JSO had ‘busted’ 200 people for “food stamps fraud.” Dubbed Operation Half-Back, JSO spent countless hours and tax dollars since the beginning of 2017 monitoring a little over 100 people in low-income areas suspected of selling their food stamps benefits to others. Rather than investigating the 70% of murders that went unsolved or rampant wage theft by employers in Jacksonville, JSO spent its time targeting poor and working-class people struggling to make ends meet.

 

Ohio State University law professor Michelle Alexander describes the perverse incentive that police departments in the U.S., including the JSO, have to target African Americans, Latinos and the poor for drugs and minor non-violent crimes, rather than solving violent crime like rapes and murders. Federal funds for police, like Bryne grants, get dispersed based on the number of drug arrests and operations conducted by police departments. Asset forfeiture laws, which allow police to seize property from suspects even before conviction, also encourage police to make arrests for drugs and other non-violent crimes, promising loot and plunder which they have no legal requirement to report.

 

Rather than protecting the community from danger or violent crime, as Williams and the JSO claim, the police target poor and working class communities, particularly Jacksonville’s Black community. Crime has social roots, like Jacksonville’s high poverty rate, poor public transportation infrastructure and skyrocketing housing costs. Rather than addressing these real concerns for Jacksonville’s working class, Curry wants to pour money into the police to grind us down even more.

 

Getting away with murder: JSO’s racist police crimes

 

JSO has a long, disgraceful history of targeting and brutalizing Jacksonville’s Black community - from blatant racial profiling to police murders. 

 

In November 2017, the Florida Times Union and Propublica published an investigative report by Ben Conarck and Topher Sanders, which revealed JSO disproportionately stops and tickets Black people for jaywalking. Titled ‘Walking While Black’, the report found that these $65 citations “were disproportionately issued to blacks,” who received 55% of pedestrian tickets while making up just 29% of the city’s population. JSO issued the vast majority of these tickets in Jacksonville’s poorest neighborhoods, and “Blacks account for a higher percentage of tickets in Duval County than any other large county in Florida.”

 

Beyond profiling, JSO gets away with literal murder. Since 2007, JSO officers have shot 133 people, according to the Florida Times Union. 101 of those shot by JSO, or 76%, were Black. 

 

Many of these shootings have sparked community outrage and protest, like the May 2016 murder of Vernell Bing Jr. JSO officers shot Bing in the back of his head as he ran away from them in Springfield, one of Jacksonville’s historically Black neighborhoods. Similar protests demanding justice erupted following the murder of D’Angelo Stallworth, who worked at UPS in Jacksonville, by police outside his apartment. 

 

To date, the state attorney’s office has never indicted a JSO officer for any of these shootings, ruling them ‘justified’ every time. The city council has refused to take action regarding JSO’s policies of racial profiling, deferring instead to vague, empty promises by Sheriff Williams to make changes.

 

Big brother is watching: Sheriff Williams’ request for a ‘Real-Time Crime Center’

 

Sheriff Williams announced he plans to use $1.2 million of the proposed $30 million increase in funding to create a ‘Real-Time Crime Center’ for JSO. The plan involves installing more than a hundred cameras across Jacksonville, which JSO officers would monitor in real-time. JSO has already begun experimenting with facial recognition software and would likely use it for this massive police surveillance program.

 

This disturbing proposal to create a surveillance dragnet on the people of Jacksonville has gotten very little scrutiny from the city council and the local media. It amounts to a massive invasion of privacy and expansion of JSO’s power, which operates with zero community accountability.

 

While Williams calls this a ‘crime center,’ JSO’s history indicates that this 1984-style surveillance program will just as easily work to spy on and repress activists and ordinary citizens. In March 2017, the Florida Times Union published an article by reporter Ben Conarck exposing a massive program of surveillance by JSO on local activists and organizers. Officers would videotape, photograph, follow and track activists, particularly those involved in the #BlackLivesMatter movement and rallies against the police killing of Vernell Bing Jr. in May 2016.

 

Just a few weeks later on April 7, 2017, JSO officers attacked an anti-war march put on by many of the same activists under surveillance. Officers beat and arrested five protesters, dubbed the ‘Jax 5’ by supporters. Footage of the brutal JSO crackdown spread internationally, and a community campaign backing the Jax 5 successfully pressured State Attorney Melissa Nelson to drop the bogus charges. Nelson’s decision drew scorn and anger from both JSO officers and the Fraternal Order of Police, who wanted to see protesters locked up for dissent.

 

Jacksonville's poverty police state: Good for the rich, bad for the working class

 

While giving massive handouts to the JSO, Mayor Curry has done nothing to help Jacksonville’s working class in his nearly four-year term. His 2018-2019 budget proposal continues this trend and will make life worse for all working people in Jacksonville.

 

Ten years after the 2008 financial crisis, poverty still haunts north Florida. In 2016, 14% of people in Jacksonville lived below the poverty line, including 20.6% of children. Renters, who make up 46% of the city’s residents, have seen the fifth fastest growth of rent costs in the United States. 1 in 5 Jacksonville households reported food insecurity in 2015, meaning they lacked adequate food for at least one week each month.

 

It’s a problem that has grown worse under Curry. From 2014 to 2018, the number of low-income children in Duval County Public Schools rose by 12.2%, according to the Florida Times Union. More than half of public school students in Duval County are considered poor and qualify for free and reduced meal programs in 2018, up from 44.8% in 2014 – the year before Curry became mayor. And in the same period, the number of high and middle-income students dropped 12.3%. 

 

Workers’ wages in Jacksonville lag behind the rest of the country, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In May 2017, the average wage in Jacksonville was $22 per hour compared to $24 around the country. Wages for nurses and construction workers lagged the furthest behind the rest of the country, owing to the anti-union policies pushed by Curry, employers and the Republican-dominated city council. Nurses in Jacksonville, who have no union representation at the city’s many private hospitals, made $5.71 less per hour than their counterparts in the rest of the country. 

 

Even worse, construction workers in Jacksonville made $9.92 per hour less than the national average in their occupation. For years, the Republican-dominated city council has worked to weaken Jacksonville’s building trades unions by awarding contracts to non-union companies. As mayor, Curry continues using non-union contractors to drive down wages for all construction workers and weakening the building trades unions, like IBEW Local 177.

 

Jacksonville’s budget reflects the class interests of the people who run this city: big business, developers, landowners and the rich. Curry and the city council keep property taxes low for the rich and criminally underfund the city’s infrastructure, particularly public transportation. They weaken social services and strangle economic development on the majority-Black Northside. Employers profit from keeping wages low. Landowners profit from keeping rent prices high. Developers profit from buying up property in poor neighborhoods and driving the residents out. And they use Curry and the city council to attack unions any chance they get.

 

Instead of helping the city’s struggling working class, Curry and the city council spend $0.33 of every $1 on policing and brutalizing its citizens. It’s a poverty police state, and Jacksonville’s entire working class suffers because of it.

 

‘Not another dime’ for JSO until we have community control of the police

 

The JSO operates with zero accountability from either the state attorney or the city council. Year after year, they loot the public coffers and commit more police crimes. Protected at the state level by the so-called Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights (LEOBOR), which prevents communities from exercising effective accountability over their police forces, the JSO operates with impunity.

 

It doesn’t have to be this way. Beginning in summer 2017, community groups and activists in Jacksonville have waged a campaign for community control of the police. Led by the Jacksonville Community Action Committee (JCAC), the campaign wants the Florida state legislature to repeal LEOBOR, which would pave the way for the creation of a Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC). Modeled after a proposal in Chicago, the CPAC would consist of an elected board of civilians who would oversee the JSO, with the powers to investigate misconduct and crimes, subpoena evidence, rewrite JSO procedures, and fire guilty officers.

 

While the fight to repeal LEOBOR continues, the JCAC wants the city council to vote down Mayor Curry’s proposed $30 million funding increase for JSO. Speaking at July 24 city council meeting, activists demanded “Not another dime” for JSO until we have community control of the police. Just earlier this month on July 7, a mentally ill man Harold Kraai was gunned down by JSO officer Richard Futch who, within 10 seconds of arriving at the scene, fired eight bullets at Kraai. Kraai was having a mental health episode and his family had sought mental health help previously but Jacksonville doesn’t fund those services. 

 

Instead of increasing the coffers of the cops, members of the JCAC along with Kraai’s family argue the council should put that money towards helping the working-class communities that need it the most. 

 

Curry’s budget will receive several more hearings at the city council through August. The JCAC calls on people across Jacksonville to speak out against Mayor Curry’s budget and stand up to JSO’s expansionist agenda. Currently the budget is slated to go through the finance committee before passing and the JCAC is calling on members of the community to demand those councilpersons reject this atrocious handout.

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