Action News Jax investigates inconsistent release of jail surveillance video

The city of Jacksonville denied Christian Testa’s request to publicly release the jailhouse video of his father, who would later die in police custody.

The request for jail surveillance video was part of Christian Testa’s federal lawsuit.

The city’s denial highlights a larger issue of how Florida’s public records law allows the government to pick and choose the video you’re allowed to see.

JSO has released video before in some cases, but continues to deny the public access in others.

“My dad was in the bed, choked out so bad that his eyes were popping out of his head. I mean, I knew right there that he was gone,” Christian Testa told Action News Jax in September of 2016.

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That gruesome image is Christian Testa’s last memory of his father before he died.

But it’s what led Paul Testa into that hospital bed in December 2015 that is the subject of his son’s federal lawsuit.

“He doesn’t know what happened to his father,” said Christian Testa’s attorney Ted Pina.

Shortly after a judge dropped Paul Testa’s charges, JSO documents say he started fighting with corrections officers.

Those officers stunned Testa by Taser, then strapped him into a restraint chair.

That’s when he stopped breathing.

In 2015, JSO denied Action News Jax’s request for jail surveillance video of Paul Testa.

This week, the city of Jacksonville’s general counsel denied the same request by Pina.

“It really doesn’t make any sense. In a DUI case, for example, we frequently request video at the jail and we’re given video. The difference in those cases, obviously, is we’re not suing JSO,” said Pina.

The city cited the same Florida statutes to Pina that JSO has cited to Action News Jax in the past as reason for denial.

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The statutes exempt security system plans for public buildings, including "audio and visual presentations," from public records laws.

Action News Jax Law and Safety Expert Dale Carson said there can be good reason for that.

“The positions of the cameras, the way certain doors open, photographs of the locks,” said Carson. “And you could certainly edit the film so it would only show the activity of the officer and the inmate, as opposed to everything that’s going on in the facility.”

Earlier this month, JSO cited those statutes when it denied Action News Jax’s request for sally port video of an autistic inmate getting booked.

But JSO had no problem releasing sally port video last year, when it announced it was taking action against Officer Akinyemi Borisade for hitting handcuffed inmate Mayra Martinez.

Last year, Action News Jax also showed you JSO surveillance video from inside the juvenile detention center.

The Nassau County Sheriff’s Office released surveillance video of a corrections officer attacking an inmate in 2015.

The Flagler County Sheriff's Office publicly released video showing an inmate in a restraint chair in 2005.
"When it suits their purpose, we get to see it, as the public. When it doesn't suit their purpose, they give us this law," said Carson.

City of Jacksonville Deputy General Counsel Jon Phillips said the city is willing to hand over the video of Paul Testa to Pina if he signs a confidentiality agreement.

That means Pina and Christian Testa could watch it, but they could not release it to the public.

JSO declined Action News Jax’s request for an interview, but spokesperson Lauri-Ellen Smith sent the following statement:

"I cannot speak for any of the other agencies you highlighted in your email, but at JSO we work diligently to balance the importance of releasing that info with all the prevailing laws and contract rules. We rely on the expertise of our attorneys to guide us on these matters. While videos from inside the jail are confidential by Florida law, the Sheriff has the statutory authority, under certain circumstances, to release information if doing so would further the agency’s accomplishment of its official duties and responsibilities. For example, in our announcement of the arrest of an officer (Borisade), our leadership determined that releasing the video related to those criminal charges was legally authorized and appropriate, given the specific facts and context of that matter. The circumstances regarding that criminal matter and this civil litigation are not at all the same.”