“The Usual Suspects” A Plea for Increased Citizen Oversight of the Jacksonville Sheriff Office.
June 19’s episode of WJCT-TV Public Affairs gabfest “Week In Review” saw embattled Jacksonville Sheriff John Rutherford facing questions from a panel of local reporters. What he said during the session showed that the grave disconnects between the Sheriff’s office and the community probably won’t be resolved in this sheriff’s tenure. I will do my best to keep the forthcoming quotes in their proper context. The facts, sadly, speak for themselves. On the issue of TASERs and of the proposed Citizen Review Board to deal with local complaints about police excesses, Sheriff Rutherford has chosen to ignore the principled, bipartisan outcry against how his department conducts business. This hubris might prove fatal to politicians in other places. But here in DuVal, the voters are the walking dead, and they don’t care too much. When discussing the utility of TASERs when collaring a perp, Sheriff Rutherford had this to say about why the police, here and elsewhere, think that the controversial zapper is cooler than an LCD Soundsystem remix of the “Dragnet Theme”: “It’s not the force [the police] use — it’s [the suspect’s] physical response to it.” In case there was any confusion as to what he meant, the Sheriff amplified his remarks later on in the show; when talking about a future collaring-gone-wrong, Rutherford blithely said “this person can die, it doesn’t matter what [the arresting officers] do.” Truly, this is a sheriff for the Grand Theft Auto generation. Much of the 6/19 “WIR” dealt with the idea that deaths in JSO custody are inevitable. They’ve happened before, they’ll happen again, but take heart — body bags are cheaper by the bulk. Seventeen minutes in, the Sheriff’s performance hit its apogee. The Sheriff flubbed the name of one of the people who died in custody, an Ezra Jones who the sheriff wanted to call Sammie, though Sammie was the first name of Mr. Evans, the guy before him who the JSO introduced to his maker. The Sheriff misspoke at an inconvenient time, throwing him off his game, which served him poorly when he launched into a Faulknerian disquisition about how Ezra Jones died of “excited delirium”. [Interestingly, I don’t remember that term being used back a few months ago, when the story was as TV-4 reported, that “Evans died of a broken neck and the Medical Examiner’s Office said Jones died of a heart attack brought on by the use of cocaine and the stress of being held in a restraining chair at the jail.” But memories falter.] Excited delirium. It’s not the force used, it’s the reaction to it. Apparently, cause and effect aren’t Rutherford’s strong points. Further extending his remarks, the Sheriff explained that TASERs, advanced law enforcement technology, and increased police latitude are necessary because of the worst of the suspects. “The middle linebacker armed with a machete”, he said. Feel safer yet? You’d better fake it, at least. Sheriff Rutherford was forthright, if opaque, in explaining that he opposed the emergence of a Citizen’s Review Board. “What I don’t want to do is politicize a fact-finding process,” he said, adding that “I was elected to do that.” Fact-finding processes are always political. Ask Dick Nixon and Mark Felt. Ask those jobbers who lose elections with 49.9% of the vote. Ask someone stopped and frisked because he’s a black man, walking by himself at the wrong time of day with a backpack. The world is full of people who can tell you how fact-finding works, if one lacks any control over the facts found and how those facts are presented. It’s telling that the JSO wants to embrace more aggressive tactics even as evidence of departmental inefficiency and overstretch mounts. As First Coast News reported on May 23, there are 79,000 unserved warrants in DuVal County. Part of their justification for en masse surveilliance and ticky-tack traffic stops is that they are trying to catch criminals already on the books. That is a lame argument and should be shelved. Or at least issued with a laugh track. We need a Citizens’ Review Board. We need increased transparency from the Sheriff’s Office. Finally, we need to find a way to stop using the JSO as an instrument of mass coercion. There has to be a better way for a police department to work than in declared opposition to those it’s supposed to protect and serve. — AG