Early on the morning of Sept. 17, three Collier County Sheriff’s deputies and a police dog answered a 911 call, arriving at a quiet street in a housing development south of Immokalee called Farm Worker Village. There, they encountered Nicolas Morales, a longtime Immokalee resident, who police say was carrying a shovel and garden shears. Within 13 seconds of arriving, Cpl. Pierre Richard Jean fired four gunshots and killed Morales, a farmworker and a single father of a 13-year-old son.
In the six weeks since his death, the Collier County Sheriff’s Office has released conflicting statements. While the Sheriff’s Office has made some records available, such as the 911 call, they have withheld other records, such as video footage from a patrol car dash camera, citing an ongoing investigation. The Sheriff’s Office’s arbitrary approach to public communication has only eroded trust and sowed doubt about what transpired in the 13 seconds between the deputies’ arrival and Morales’ death.
His family, Immokalee community organizations, and faith and community leaders from the broader Southwest Florida area have come together to call for answers to the many questions from the night he was killed. Why was it necessary to shoot a man allegedly armed with garden tools when the deputies were equipped with a trained police dog? Why are the Sheriff’s Office statements on the events of that night inconsistent when it comes to what sort of tools Morales was carrying? What efforts were made at a non-violent resolution in the 13 seconds between the officers’ arrival and Morales’ death? The answers to these questions could determine whether the deputies’ use of force was justified.
The relationship between the public and law enforcement is reciprocal: the public depends on police for safety, just as law enforcement depends on the public to report crimes and provide witness testimony. This is especially true in Immokalee: In 2007, workers detailed to Collier County deputies how they beaten, chained and locked in trucks. The abusive employers were later arrested and convicted for enslaving farmworkers, thanks to the lines of communication and partnership forged between law enforcement and community organizations. That does not happen without trust.
There are exemptions that make some records both confidential and exempt, and an agency can only release those records to certain entities or individuals. Other exemptions make records simply exempt, but not confidential — and agencies like the Sheriff’s Office have discretion to release exempt records.
In the Sunshine State, the courts are clear: Information in an active criminal investigation may be released, precisely for the sake of building public trust. In the case of Nicolas Morales, the release of non-confidential records — especially the dash cam footage — could help shed light on what happened between the 911 call and Nicolas Morales’ death, which could also be crucial in improving practices by law enforcement and preventing future shootings.
As cities and counties across the country grapple with community and law enforcement relations, the Collier County Sheriff’s Office has an opportunity to lead and set an example of transparency by releasing non-confidential records. This accountability will foster much-needed trust with community — the very trust that made it possible for workers to come forward with information regarding human trafficking and other violent crimes — and thus make the entire county a safer place.
Pamela Marsh, previously the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Florida, is president of the First Amendment Foundation, an organization dedicated to ensuring transparency and openness in government.