JSO Chief Announces ‘Liaison’ Amid Outcry Over Transgender Murders, But Role Is Unclear

Jul 25, 2018

Following the shootings of four transgender women in Jacksonville this year, LGBT advocates have criticized the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office for identifying the victims as men and using their given names instead of chosen names. Three of the victims died.

Since February, activists have been holding press conferences and speaking at City Council meetings, asking JSO to appoint a publicly advertised liaison to the LGBT community, require more officer training around transgender issues and amend its policies.

After more public comment from advocates at this week’s City Council meeting, JSO Patrol Support Division Chief Mat Nemeth spoke to the council to address the concerns.

“Sheriff Mike Williams has established a liaison within the sheriff’s office,” he said.

He described the “liaison” as being “a group” consisting of officers and civilians within the sheriff’s office, who will serve as points of contact for the LGBT community as JSO investigates this year’s unsolved transgender murders.

WJCT News followed up with several questions for JSO:

  • How many people are part of the liaison group Nemeth referenced?
  • Who are they?
  • Will their contact information be listed publicly?
  • Are these liaison positions new?
  • Should the group members be called LGBT liaisons?
  • Is this liaison group being appointed because of the outcry over transgender murders? If not, then why?
  • What will the liaison group be responsible for? Will the group be tasked with recommending policy changes or training?

JSO Public Information Officer Melissa Bujeda responded by email, “We are having conversations directly with the community representatives. Further details on the discussions will be released at a forthcoming meeting.”

JSO is inviting the community to a meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 2. Nemeth said Sheriff Williams, the undersheriff and other staff members will be there to have a “one-on-one with that group of folks” and others interested in discussing the issue.

Earlier this month the sheriff met with a small group of transgender advocates. And local advocates had been calling for a liaison and other changes since before the shootings.

“It’s a way to build trust, to gain information, to be accountable, to provide training, to recruit so that you have better diversity within your sheriff’s office and so on,” Jacksonville Coalition for Equality Chair Dan Merkan told WJCT News in March.

That was after a task force on community engagement, which Sheriff Mike Williams convened, recommended JSO should appoint an LGBT liaison in late 2016, as well as liaisons for other groups, including the Hispanic population. None of those appointments were made.

Instead of formal liaisons, JSO established what’s called the Sheriff’s Watch program, citizen-led groups who meet monthly to discuss law enforcement matters. Officers attend the meetings to listen and provide information.

“We would invite all citizens wanting to be heard, to attend one of several Sheriff’s Watch meetings throughout the city to voice concerns,” JSO spokesman Christian Hancock told WJCT last month.

JSO spokesman Chris Brown said in March a JSO officer had been acting as a point person to LGBT advocacy leadership, but the general public couldn’t know the person’s identity because he or she works undercover.

Merkan criticized the set-up, saying the community should be able to access whoever is in that role.

In February, following the city’s first shooting death of a transgender woman, WJCT reported on how Seattle police handle transgender identification. That department’s liaison created an officer program and policy of calling transgender people  — whether suspects or victims — by their preferred pronouns and names, even if they haven’t been legally changed.

JSO doesn’t have a similar transgender-specific policy.

“It is not an act of disrespect that we refer to the victims by their legal names,” Hancock said last month. “As an agency, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office determines the identification and sex of a deceased victim by using the victim’s government-issued ID or that which is determined by the medical examiner.”

A JSO media release on June 27 about the most recent transgender victim referred to her as “a transgender victim” and listed several names she has used, a departure from previous notifications.

JSO’s community meeting will be at FSCJ's Downtown Campus at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 2.

Lindsey Kilbride can be reached at lkilbride@wjct.org, 904-358-6359 or on Twitter at @lindskilbride.