An internal group chat among members of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office gang unit was “offensive” and “completely out of line,” according to a Black officer on the thread.
The text exchange was obtained by First Coast News as part of a broader investigation into allegations of racial bias within the elite unit.
The group is titled “P— A– Crackers” and includes at least six members of the gang unit, including a Black officer who later left the unit.
(It’s not clear who the officer is, and he did not provide the texts to First Coast News.)
The first post in the September 2020 text exchange is from Sgt. Doug Howell, who is currently being investigated by the Sheriff’s Office for social media posts and reposts that appear to demean or denigrate people of color and the LGBTQ community.
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He sends a story link about an NFL ceremony honoring Jamee Johnson, a Florida A&M University student killed by gang unit officer Josue Garriga during a traffic stop in 2019, along with an emoji with closed eyes and a flat mouth.
“Sad,” Officer Matt Bolen replies. “Just one more reason I won’t be watching.”
Garriga sends a faceplant emoji. “Why are they recognizing that clown,” he asks.
Bolen replies, “If Sway [Garriga’s nickname] would have been shot or drug to death I guess that would have been better, unreal.”
“They are so far outside of reality,” Howell writes. “Ignorance in its purest form.”
“Goes to show no matter how wrong they are, they still will be recognized just because they are Black,” Garriga responds, adding an OK emoji.
Two hours later, a Black officer on the thread responds.
“The shooting with Jamee Johnson was justified,” he begins. “However, for you to make a specific comment saying that just because a person is Black that people feel sorry for them, I feel like that was completely out of line and I find it offensive.”
He continues, “You have no right to stereotyping [sic] Black people … that’s just like saying all officers are racist…”
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“We all have our opinions and that’s cool, but I’m not going to take the indirect disrespect,” he concludes. “If you want to talk about these situations then I ask that you do it without me.”
Without missing a beat, Garriga responds. “It’s truth,” he writes one minute later, with a screen grab of a story critical of the Johnson memorial.
The officer later quit the gang unit.
It’s no wonder why people don’t trust the police
“He left for that reason, for what he’s speaking out against,” said crime and safety analyst Kim Varner, a former Jacksonville sheriff’s officer. “He wanted to get out that unit.”
The gang unit is responsible for policing neighborhoods that are often majority Black, frequently interacting with Black youth. The unit is also responsible for classifying someone as a gang member, which can double criminal penalties.
Howell, known as “Sofa” in the neighborhoods he patrols, has a poor reputation according to another Black officer who used to work alongside him. As a former gang unit member concerned about Howell’s impact on the unit, the officer felt compelled to speak. But as a current Sheriff’s Office employee, he felt unable to do so publicly.
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In a lengthy statement written to First Coast News, he said Howell’s social media posts are not only “harmful to the community” but may “endanger lives.”
“Law enforcement officers are sworn to uphold the law and to do so fairly and without prejudice,” he wrote. “A supervising officer should not post views of this nature in a public forum for subordinates and for the public at large to see.
“Honestly, knowing that he even has these feelings privately is awful already, but to boldly declare it publicly for all to see and without consequences, it has a feel of condonation.”
The officer called Howell’s behavior “erratic,” adding, “by all appearances, he seems to be harder on the people of color in our unit than of their white counterparts.”
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Varner is retired from the Sheriff’s Office but remains active in efforts to curb violence, particularly on the city’s Eastside where he lives. He said “Sofa” has a reputation for hassling young Black men, who may or may not be affiliated with gangs.
“These guys might not be angels, but at the time when he’s interfering with them, they’re not doing anything wrong,” Varner said. “But he’s jacking them up and violating their rights. And you wonder why people don’t trust the police?”
Varner said there are many good officers who’ve worked with the gang unit but believes there’s bias in the way they patrol. “That’s why the Black officers that go to that unit, that’s why they transfer out of it,” he said. “They see that the way that they’re violating rights and doing things that no other unit in the Sheriff’s Office does. And they leave.”
The result, he said, is a unit that doesn’t reflect the community.
“They’re predominantly white, you know, riding in a Black neighborhood, patrolling or overseeing gangs,” Varner said. “And it’s not about color. But that’s one unit that I think it would help if you had more officers of color.”
Blacks aren’t the only targets
In his written statement, the other Black officer said too often biased views go unchallenged. “By all appearances, other officers either agree with his views or lack the courage of conviction and find it’s easier to turn a blind eye,” he wrote.
Varner concur. “I know a couple of guys in that unit that I know to be good people. But they’re not speaking out against it. And that’s a problem.”
First Coast News provided the Sheriff’s Office with a copy of the gang unit group chat along with three dozen additional, arguably problematic tweets. (Howell locked his Twitter page after a report Monday about further derogatory comments in 2013). One tweet identifies him as a police officer, with pictures of tactical gear and his squad car.
In others, he refer to people as “retards” or “pedophiles.” “We can’t have the Bible in school, but we can celebrate someone’s sexual orientation. nope.”
In another, he jokes men should receive money to fight child support in court. “If women want the ability to kill babies, men who don’t want the responsibility shouldn’t pay child support. This is about equality right.”
Responding to a tweet asking people what they thought would be discovered in the search of Mar-a-Lago, he responds, “Michelle Obama’s nuts.”
Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office responds
On Friday, Sheriff’s Office spokesman Christain Hancock sent this statement:
“As stated before, thank you for the update to the story as well as the sending of the attached documents. The Sheriff asked that I express his appreciation to you for the gesture.
“As previously mentioned, this information has been forwarded to the Internal Affairs Commander for addition to the complaint that is already underway.
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“I will tell you that any information we receive in reference to one of our employees appearing in a bad light for whatever reason, is concerning to the Administration. Specific to your questions below, we would not want to speculate how this all turns out. The answer to these questions will come as a result of the administrative investigation that is ongoing.
“Please let me know if there may be anything we might be able to answer outside of the investigation taking place. Please don’t take my response here as confirmation of the specific employee under investigation as a result of the social media posts.”
Interim Sheriff Pat Ivey issued an earlier statement saying in part, “The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office is currently in the midst of an active administrative investigation related to multiple reports of an employee allegedly posting disparaging material on a personal social media account. As a result of the information received yesterday, I have asked that our Internal Affairs Unit look into these allegations. Detectives have begun working in their attempts to verify whether these posts are legitimate and most important, determine whether the individual responsible for the posts may be a JSO employee.
“Our goal during the process will be to ensure a complete and accurate investigation is conducted with all available information. I want to ensure that any potential discipline levied for identified violations of policy is as inclusive as possible and that all applicable posts are captured prior to this decision being made. As such, I have reached out to the local media outlets who initially ran the story. I have asked them to provide any information that they have in their possession, or that they receive at a later date, regarding the allegations to ensure that our agency has everything we need to complete a thorough investigation.”
Jamee Johnson’s family responds
Attorneys for the family of Jamee Johnson released the following statement responding to comments made by Garriga:
“Not only are these comments deeply disturbing and racist, they make it clear that Deputy Garriga doesn’t regret killing an unarmed 22-year-old and it appears he doesn’t fear the consequences of his actions. In fact, he may well have shot Mr. Johnson because he was black.
“I can’t think of a single good reason why an officer of the law would say something like this. In fact, I can only think of a bad one: because Jamee Johnson was black and Officer Garriga apparently believes that is a crime. ”