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Florida Senate to consider police reform, but Democrats say it ‘doesn’t go far enough’

“It would be horrible if we didn’t have some type of legislation to recognize what is going on in our society,” said Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale.
Florida Sen. Perry E. Thurston Jr. speaks, Tuesday, April 27, 2021, during a legislative session at the Capitol.
Florida Sen. Perry E. Thurston Jr. speaks, Tuesday, April 27, 2021, during a legislative session at the Capitol. [ WILFREDO LEE | AP ]
Published Apr. 27, 2021|Updated Apr. 27, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — A House plan that would set statewide policing standards did not appear to go far enough for senators who heard the bill for the first time on Tuesday — but it might just have to do this year.

The legislation is the result of late-session negotiations between House Republican leaders and the Florida Legislative Black Caucus, whose members filed more than a dozen measures calling for “fair and just policing” after a wave of protests were set off by the death of George Floyd last May in Minneapolis.

“This bill certainly doesn’t go far enough. But I think it would be horrible if we didn’t have some type of legislation to recognize what is going on in our society,” said Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale.

Sen. Randolph Bracy, an Orlando Democrat who is carrying the House bill in the Senate, agreed that the measure should be stricter. But he did not amend the bill because any changes could delay its passage and put the bill in peril with just three days left in the 60-day legislative session.

“I believe we can build upon this in years to come, but we do have to start somewhere,” Bracy said. “I believe this is the moment and this is the vehicle.”

The House bill, which could be considered by the full Senate as early as Wednesday, would set statewide use-of-force standards for Florida law enforcement officers. It would target the use of choke holds, add more oversight on investigations into deaths caused by police and require officers to be trained on “de-escalation” techniques.

The bill, however, does not spell out the exact training procedures or the consequences for violating the new standards. It also does not require officers to undergo “implicit bias” training, as proposed in a bill in the Senate that had bipartisan support.

‘No-brainer’ standards

If signed into law, the use of a choke hold — a controversial and deadly neck restraint used by police to subdue suspects — would be barred unless an officer “perceives an immediate threat of serious bodily injury or death to themselves or another person.”

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, noted during Tuesday’s meeting that those were the same standards that are currently in place for the use of firearms and tasers.

The bill would allow law enforcement agencies to further restrict the use of choke holds, including a ban on the practice like in Miami-Dade County. But the bill does not set any penalties for police officers who violate those bans.

“It would be up to the employing agency to determine what the penalty would be,” Bracy said.

The bill would also require on-duty officers to intervene when another officer is using excessive force, and it would require independent investigations to be conducted when an officer kills someone either by using force or firing a weapon.

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Thurston said the standards set by the bill are a “no-brainer,” even though he wishes more could have been done. Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, also said the statewide standards were important to have in place so that the state could start expanding them.

“I am happy to see that this bill came forward, but as was mentioned before there is more to do,” she said. “The fear is real in our young Black men, so the training part of it is important dealing with negative behavior.”

The push for a police reform bill gained renewed momentum in the Florida House in the final days of the legislative session, just days after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an “anti-riot” bill in response to last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests.

House and Senate Democrats fiercely opposed the “anti-riot” bill and decried that it included enhanced penalties for protesters who hurt police officers but did nothing to address police use of force against peaceful protesters and members of the community.

Bracy said in an interview that the police reform bill is not “any consolation whatsoever” for the “anti-riot” bill, but rather a “step” that has long been needed to start addressing community mistrust in police.

Late session maneuvers

The bill was considered on the House floor for the first time Friday, three days after a jury convicted former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in the murder of Floyd. The chamber unanimously passed the bill on Monday.

Shortly after its passage, Senate President Wilton Simpson called a hearing for the House bill before the Senate Rules Committee, and he told reporters he believes “it is something that we will be supporting” on the Senate floor before the 60-day legislative session ends April 30.

The late-session movements left little room to negotiate changes to the bill, which was tightly negotiated by House Speaker Chris Sprowls. Sprowls, a Republican from Palm Harbor who is a former prosecutor and the son of a police officer, has been reluctant to support more holistic police reforms authored by the Senate.

“We kind of have a feeling of what the House will take and what they won’t take,” Bracy told the Times/Herald in an interview last week.

“I don’t think there has been a bill like this definitely in the past couple of decades where you provide some reforms and you have the entire Legislature on board and you have the police organizations on board,” Bracy said.

The bill is backed by virtually every key statewide law enforcement organization, endorsements that Republican leaders in recent years have deferred to when considering criminal justice reforms.

DeSantis, however, has been mum on whether he would support such a measure. The governor, who is positioning himself for re-election in 2022, has taken a staunch pro-law enforcement stance and touted the “anti-riot” bill to highlight that position.

His office has ignored repeated requests seeking comment on the governor’s position on the bill. His spokeswoman, Meredith Beatrice, said Friday she had “received” the request but has not responded since.

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