After year of protests, Florida police reform targets choke holds, training

A bill sets new use-of-force policies for Florida law enforcement officers, limits the use of the controversial choke-hold tactic and requires the state to collect data police officers use of force that results in serious bodily injury or death or shoot at a person.
House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R- Palm Harbor.
House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R- Palm Harbor. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published April 14, 2021|Updated April 14, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — After months of negotiations, Republican House leaders and members of the Florida Legislative Black Caucus have reached a compromise on a bill that aims to improve trust in police by addressing use of force and other police tactics.

The bill, introduced by the House Judiciary Committee, would set statewide use-of-force policies for Florida law enforcement officers, limit the use of the controversial choke-hold tactic and would require the state to collect data on cases in which police officers use force that results in serious bodily injury or death or shoot at a person.

The proposal (PCB JDC 21-01), scheduled for its first hearing Thursday, comes nearly a year after protests erupted across Florida and in the United States over the death of George Floyd, who died last year after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for more than nine minutes.

The Black Lives Matter and social justice protests also sparked a backlash from Republican leaders in Florida and Gov. Ron DeSantis, who are pushing through legislation to stiffen punishments for crimes committed during protests that turn violent. That bill (HB 1) was fast-tracked in the House and it appears to be on the verge of passing in the Senate.

Rep. Fentrice Driskell, a Tampa Democrat who led negotiations with House leaders on behalf of the Black Caucus, said the police training bill stands in contrast to HB 1, a top legislative priority for DeSantis that Democrats in both chambers have been unsuccessful in their attempts to amend it.

Rep. Fentrice Driskell
Rep. Fentrice Driskell [ Provided ]

“This is the sort of work product that we come up with when we’re willing to put partisanship aside and try to focus on policy that will help make our communities safer, that will build trust between the law enforcement community and especially communities of color,” Driskell said in an interview Tuesday.

House Judiciary Committee Vice Chair Cord Byrd, a Neptune Beach Republican who will be sponsoring the police reform bill, said the proposal “reflects the work and conversations over many months with and between lawmakers, law enforcement and citizens.”

“Trust in our public institutions is vital, and none more so than trust in our law enforcement,” Byrd said in a text message. “The bill is a bipartisan effort to promote best law enforcement practices and makes them uniform throughout the state.”

Use of choke holds is targeted

The proposal would set statewide use-of-force policies that would include training on “de-escalation” techniques, require on-duty officers to intervene and end another officer’s excessive use of force when “reasonable,” and would set a minimum statewide standard for the use of choke holds. It would bar the use of choke holds — a controversial neck restraint used by police to subdue suspects — unless an officer “perceives an immediate threat of serious bodily injury or death to themselves or another person.”

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If an agency wants to be more restrictive, the bill would allow it, Byrd said.

The choke hold language in the House bill differs from a Senate bill that would bar the practice except in a “deadly force situation.” differs from a Senate bill that would bar the practice except in a “deadly force situation.”

Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman Jason Pizzo, D-Miami, is sponsoring the proposal, which is on its last committee stop. Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle helped craft the proposal, which includes other differences in the statewide standards of police training. That proposal is backed by the Miami-Dade Association of Chiefs of Police and the South Florida Police Benevolent Association.

Miami-Dade police, the largest law enforcement agency in the Southeastern United States, banned choke holds last June in the wake of Floyd’s death. At the time, Police Director Alfredo Ramirez said he decided to do away with the policy after speaking with experts and community members, many of whom considered the practice dangerous and outdated.

Driskell said the House bill, under the leadership of House Speaker Chris Sprowls, reflects much of what the Black Caucus as well as what the Senate and House Democratic caucuses have been pushing “with respect to police reform.”

“I can think of nothing more serious at this time in our country than trying to figure out how to build better relationships between the law enforcement community and communities of color,” she said.

Top issue for the Black Caucus

At the start of session, members of the Black Caucus filed more than a dozen measures that aimed to move toward what they call “fair and just policing.” Some of the measures would create a centralized state database for police misconduct, allow victims of excessive police force to seek compensation from the state, and ban law enforcement from acquiring certain military equipment and using tear gas on lawful protesters.

Some of those concepts, while not identical, did make it onto the House bill. For example, the bill would require the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to collect data from every law enforcement agency related to use of force cases that result in serious bodily injury, death or an officer’s firing weapon. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement would begin collecting data after July 1, 2022.

The bill would also require all law enforcement agencies to keep a record of officers’ termination, resignation or retirements from an agency for at least five years. Furthermore, the bill would require each law enforcement agency to set use-of-force investigation policies that, at a minimum, must include an independent review of the incident.

Aside from police training, the bill would also ban the arrests of children under the age of 7, unless they commit a forcible felony like murder, robbery, burglary, arson or an aggravated assault. The language was crafted in response to last year’s arrest of 6-year-old Kaia Rolle at an Orlando charter school for throwing a tantrum.

Police body camera video showed the girl sobbing as cops restrained her hands with a zip tie, removed her from the school and put her in a police car.

“Please help me,” she begged. “Please give me a second chance. Please let me go.”

Sen. Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando, tried to push legislation last year that would have barred the arrest of children under the age of 10. But the proposal died on the last day of the 2020 legislative session. Bracy revived the issue this year in a Senate bill that passed the chamber unanimously last week. His bill is identical to the language included in the House police training bill.

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