Public safety in Jacksonville will focus on three stages: prevention, intervention with first-time offenders and enforcement.
That was the message delivered Monday by Sheriff Mike Williams to the Rotary Club of Jacksonville.
The sheriff said having 40 more police officers in the budget being considered by City Council is a step in the right direction to make Jacksonville a safer place to live.
Williams cited 2011, when Jacksonville experienced the lowest level of crime — particularly violent crime — in 40 years with nearly 150 more officers on the street than today.
Also included in the proposed budget are funds to hire 40 community service officers who will handle accident reports, traffic control and other duties that don’t require a sworn officer with a badge and a gun.
But there was more to the low crime rate in 2011 than having more police officers on the beat.
“We also had Jacksonville Journey funding,” said Williams, who took office July 1.
The Journey began during Mayor John Peyton’s administration as a way to involve the community in reaching young people before they become involved in crime.
Over the years, programs were cut back or eliminated entirely. Williams views the restoration of the after-school and mentorship programs as a key element in reducing crime in the future.
“We have got to keep young people off the street corners where they meet the drug dealers and gang members,” he said.
He said being able to influence a young person at 6 or 7 years old with a program designed to lead them away from crime will reap benefits a decade from now. That will require city funding for nonprofit and faith-based organizations that provide prevention and intervention services.
“The Journey is the long-term solution to some of our issues,” said Williams.
Hiring more officers and restoring the Journey programs “will get us back to where we need to be in terms of fighting crime,” he said.
Making the sheriff’s office more efficient and able to make the best use of the budget available is another of the new sheriff’s priorities. He said more than $400,000 was trimmed from the department’s 2015-16 budget compared to the previous year by reducing staff in the upper levels of the organization.
“We have to be the best stewards of the taxpayers’ money,” Williams said.
On a more specific topic, Williams said he is not opposed to equipping police officers with body cameras and the department is exploring the option.
The cost of purchasing the cameras will be a challenge, he said, since it could cost as much as $2,000 to equip each of the city’s 1,600 officers with a camera.
Sustaining the program also could present a challenge. While there might be grant money available on the federal level to purchase the cameras, maintaining the system would be a recurring cost likely to be borne locally that Williams said must be considered when deciding whether to implement such a system.
“You can’t count on federal grant money,” he said. “They’ll get you started and then leave you hanging.”
Williams was joined for his visit to Rotary by three of his colleagues from neighboring counties.
As club President John Fryer introduced Baker County Sheriff Joey Dobson, Sheriff Rick Beseler from Clay County and Nassau County Sheriff Bill Leeper, he told club members and guests at the Omni hotel they were in the safest place in Jacksonville.
“You’d have to go to a sheriff’s convention to see more sheriffs in one room,” said Fryer.