Activists call on council to reinstate Jacksonville’s ‘Safer Together’ committee

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Dozens of community activists gathered on the steps of Jacksonville City Hall Tuesday to demand the Safer Together committee be reinstated.

The workshops were ended by Council President Sam Newby last week.

In a letter to council members, Newby said, “These workshops were established to provide a venue for these experts to share their knowledge with members of this body and the general public. In addition, this forum has provided individuals an opportunity to share the experiences which shaped their attitude regarding our policing community. For the accomplishment of these goals, I am grateful.”

Chants for police accountability could be heard at the rally, which was spearheaded by community activists including Ben Frazier with the Northside Coalition. He said the work of the committee is not done.

“The work of this committee is much-needed. It’s necessary,” he said. “We’re suggesting that it’s time for more trust, transparency and accountability at [the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office].”

The workshops were ended after council member Michael Boylan resigned as Vice Chair of the committee.

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“I have been clear all along that I would not support a civilian incident review board. Given the current environment, I no longer believe a civilian policy review board would prove to be successful or even acceptable to those seeking the creation of the incident review board,” he said in his resignation letter.

A citizen review board was proposed by councilman Garrett Dennis. It would consist of 15 people, with one JSO representative.

The board would review closed investigations, review policies and make recommendations.

“We cannot trust [JSO] to investigate their friends, their buddies, their compatriots, their coworkers. We need objective, third-party investigations,” Frazier said.

Steve Zona, the president of the Jacksonville Fraternal Order of Police, stated a citizen review board would be based on emotion.

“We don’t mind investigations from anybody if it’s based on facts and evidence,” Zona told Action News Jax’s Robert Grant. “Citizen review boards always, not sometimes, always show their ugly head based on agenda, politics and emotions.”

The committee’s final report does recommend revisiting the idea of a citizen review board.

“It is apparent that trust and transparency are issues between JSO and the community,” the report said.

Zona argued the activists who showed up at the workshops did not represent the Jacksonville community.

“We’re hearing the same repeated rhetoric from the fringe element that comes to these meetings, and they don’t represent the community of Jacksonville.”

“Whether you like our tone or not, we are the community,” Christina Kittle, with the Jacksonville Community Action Committee, said. “We don’t like what’s going on in our community. You don’t have to like us, but you have to respect us.”

Zona said there were some positive discussions that came as a result of the Safer Together committee, including those about mental illness.

The final report recommends increasing the number of co-responders for mental health calls to a minimum of 18 on staff. According to the report, that would allow for one co-responder on every shift in every zone.

“You can take some of that [pressure] off the backs of law enforcement and hopefully intervene with those people in our community — get them the services and help they need,” Zona said.

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Safer Together was started in the spring of 2020 by the late Tommy Hazouri, the former council president, during calls for police reform.

The idea of the committee, according to the report, was to prevent crime, eliminate fear and earn trust.