JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – After violence broke out Friday at what began as a peaceful protest of the United States’ attack on a Syrian air base, there are new calls for more police oversight.
It began when supporters of President Trump showed up at the Hemming Park protest and it escalated into an all-out brawl recorded by several cellphone cameras. Police officers were hit during the melee, but representatives of some of the six people arrested complained that officers were heavy-handed.
For years, some groups have called for a citizen review board to look at controversial shootings and other incidents involving the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office. Currently, those are reviewed internally.
The advocates of the review board said Friday evening’s incident is a good example of why it is needed.
Ben Frazier, with Northside Coalition of Jacksonville, was not involved in the protest but has been outspoken against JSO policies.
“We call it the Friday night fiasco at the park,” Frazier said. “We think, for the most part, JSO just simply blew it.”
The head of the Progressive Coalition, the group that organized the protest, is withholding comment while protesters who were arrested meet with their lawyers, although the mother of one of them did speak out over the weekend.
“JSO should not be allowed to get away with this type of behavior. I am highly disappointed — highly — (in) those that are entrusted to protect and serve,” said Felicia Crooms, whose son, Connell, was among those arrested.
Frazier is using the incident to renew his call for the city to establish a citizen review board to give an independent report on incidents like this.
“A citizens review board is necessary for us to be able to hear the complaints of citizens who feel they have been mistreated by the police,” Frazier said. “They made excuses in this town for more than 20 years with regards to why they should not, why they cannot have the citizen review board.”
Shortly after he was elected in 2015, Sheriff Mike Williams established a Commission on Progress to look over JSO procedures and make recommendations, which could include a review board.
Asked for a comment Monday about the incident, Williams sent a lengthy statement:
Historically, and in literally hundreds of instances, protesters in Jacksonville have had their right to peaceably assemble protected by the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office without incident. And in doing so, officers have also worked diligently protecting the rights of others who may or may not be participating in or impacted by the actions of protestors. We train for and prepare for all scenarios and events.
“Friday night was no exception. We attempt to meet with those who tell us of their intention to protest. We provide guidance about the laws, our obligations, and the rights of others. As per protest planning protocol, we don’t tell groups where to go, but we do tell them what they can and cannot lawfully do – and specifically what actions may result in arrest.
“These events are fluid, and sadly, can become volatile. Agitators, aggressors, those whose goal is to disrupt peaceful protests may engage with groups and cause the situation to degenerate rapidly.
“The obligation to behave lawfully rests with every individual involved. We encourage organizers to educate members of a group and warn them of the behaviors that are not lawful and how to not engage in conflict and confrontations, and instead respond with a calm and peaceful demeanor.
“Those who exercise their right to peaceably assemble and protest as responsible adults, regardless of the environment that develops, must refrain from physical violence towards one another or the police. Shoving, spitting on, kicking, hitting, grabbing, depriving an officer of his or her ability to communicate and perform their duties is against the law and will result in an arrest every time. We are obligated to respond to resistance and violence with that force necessary to overcome the resistance.
“We take reasonable precautions to protect those attempting to engage in peaceful demonstrations. But, as a result of Friday night’s criminal activity, there is a new dynamic involved in Jacksonville that has prompted me to look at how we manage protests. I am working with my leadership team to determine what new protocols may be put into place to successfully manage these events moving forward.
“We encourage any group who is planning to gather in assembly or protest in a public arena to contact their Zone Office, so we can work together to ensure a safe and lawful outcome.”
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