Below is the staff editorial appearing in today's Florida Times Union. I agree with the Times Union...."TROUBLING" indeed...that our JSO investigated a blog that had no criminal activity and advocated no criminal activity, to the point of finding its author....and to the point of giving the name of the author to the church.
Headline: JSO and First Baptist - Troubling Issues
The case, now closed, involving a police investigation of a blogger and First Baptist Church raises serious issues.
First, there is a perception that one of Jacksonville's most influential institutions used its influence with the Sheriff's Office against a man who had been criticizing it. This raises free speech issues.
Second, the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office has ethics rules that allows an investigator who works on the security detail of the church he attends to conduct the investigation.
Sheriff John Rutherford has stated that his department acted appropriately in every respect. See his statement on this page [click here].
The fact that an investigation was conducted and that information was shared with the complainant is routine practice, he said.
The investigator who conducted the work was only doing his regular job, the same actions he would take if any other faith group issued a complaint, Rutherford said.
But there are several factors that raise troubling concerns:
Weak link to criminal activity: The church was concerned about stolen mail and photos taken of the pastor's wife. But linking them to a critical blogger seemed a stretch. While the blogger's posts were critical, they did not appear to justify a police investigation.
As Rutherford wrote in his statement, the investigation was shut down because "no criminal conduct or significant threat to the church was determined to exist."
Beef up JSO's ethics code: The code forbids officers from investigating matters involving their families, JSO spokeswoman Lauri-Ellen Smith told the Times-Union, but permits probes involving friends, neighbors and churches.
Conflicts could arise in any area in which officers have close personal involvement. That could include businesses, schools, outside activities, and, especially, their places of worship. In this case, the investigating officer had both a religious and business relationship.
The Sheriff's Office should reexamine its ethics code, perhaps in concert with the city's ethics office, to prevent similar situations from happening.
The goal should be to avoid perceptions of favoritism. This case certainly fostered that perception.