How Florida got bipartisan police reform — and what was lost to achieve it

Police reform is something Democrats and Republicans had “not been able to get consensus on ever,” one state senator said.
Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, talks to the audience that are in attendance at the Mayoral Panel on the Equal Rights Amendment at the Centre Club of Tampa in Tampa, Florida on Thursday, September 5, 2019.
Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, talks to the audience that are in attendance at the Mayoral Panel on the Equal Rights Amendment at the Centre Club of Tampa in Tampa, Florida on Thursday, September 5, 2019. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]
Published Jul. 27, 2021

In early 2020, Florida’s legislative session wrapped up but the Black Caucus kept meeting.

At first, the group focused on what could be done about the pandemic. But as summer began and the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor brought renewed attention to the issue of police brutality and disparate treatment of Black people, the caucus turned its efforts to police reform.

The 27 mostly Democratic members thought getting a package on this topic passed would be an uphill slog. Police reform was “something that we have not been able to get consensus on ever, at least as long as I can remember,” said state Sen. Randolph Bracy, a Democrat.

But after Bracy spoke to House Speaker Chris Sprowls, he felt newly optimistic. The moment felt ripe for police accountability, and Sprowls, the son of a police officer who has spoken about the need for transparency in the criminal justice system, seemed open to a reform package.

The GOP-led Legislature, following a priority set by Gov. Ron DeSantis, was focused on pushing through an “anti-riot” bill in response to the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests that seemed in stark contrast to the reforms the caucus wanted.

“It felt tenuous at times because we weren’t sure if we were going to get any police reform with that backdrop,” said Rep. Fentrice Driskell.

But Driskell, an attorney from Tampa who has been tapped to lead the Florida House Democrats beginning in 2024, worked to cobble together a reform package that would be palatable to Republican leaders and law enforcement. Key to her efforts: a bipartisan team-up with Sprowls.

The bill passed the Senate and the House unanimously, was endorsed by major law enforcement organizations and was signed into law by DeSantis last month — a major moment for the caucus in a year dominated by headlines about controversial, Republican-driven bills.

Related: Police reform bill gains momentum in legislature, days after Chauvin verdict

“It feels like the culmination of a lot of hard work that has been ongoing now for more than a year,” Driskell said. “It gives me hope and optimism for Florida’s future and that we might be able to actually keep this conversation going and push for even more reform.”

Still, some lawmakers, like Bracy and state Sen. Darryl Rouson, feel the bill was toothless, passed under a time crunch that left it without some of the more aggressive reforms they’d hoped for. Bracy said legislative leaders purposely dragged out negotiations to force Democrats to accept a watered-down bill late in the session.

The new law mandates a duty to intervene if another law enforcement officer is doing something wrong, requires officers to provide medical attention to people in their custody, limits the use of chokeholds and requires job applicants to disclose if they left a prior agency while under investigation, among other changes.

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Driskell said she wasn’t surprised at the endorsement from major law enforcement organizations, saying House leadership helped by reaching out to get their perspective.

“We were both willing to give some to take some and the result is House Bill 7051,” she said.

Driskell said her constituents were surprised the bill passed unanimously, especially considering the backdrop of the “anti-riot” bill.

But even supporters of that anti-riot bill came out in favor of the police reform bill, saying it would help rebuild public trust in the system after a tumultuous year.

Sprowls said he thinks the bill was a great piece of collaborative legislation.

“I’m the son of a police officer, I’m a former prosecutor,” Sprowls said. “It is as important to me as it is to other folks to make sure all communities have confidence in their justice system.”

Sprowls said the issues of data transparency and trust in the criminal justice system have always been important to him. In 2018, when he was chair of the judiciary committee, he championed a law that required the state to collect granular data on every misdemeanor and felony case in the state to provide transparency on any biases in the criminal justice system.

While the data collection mandated by that law is behind schedule, Sprowls said he saw this year’s police reform bill as a “natural progression” of his efforts.

Bracy said he wanted to see requirements for body cameras and to create accountability for when officers violated provisions of the bill. Rouson expressed a similar sentiment at a St. Petersburg College forum earlier this month, saying the bill “didn’t have any teeth in it for failure to comply.”

Lorie Fridell, a University of South Florida professor of criminology who researches police use of force and police deviance, said most of the reforms championed in Florida’s new law were either already in place in most law enforcement agencies or were uncontroversial changes to how law enforcement agencies already operate.

Fridell noted that some of the new requirements had been recommended in 2020 by the Florida Police Chiefs Association. More controversial issues like removing qualified immunity and examining the power of police unions that have come up in other states were not mentioned in the new law.

One thing the Florida bill has that hasn’t been replicated widely, Fridell said, is requiring outside agencies to conduct deadly force investigations. Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who was involved in the formation of the bill, led the move to put such a practice in place in Pinellas County in July 2020, saying the idea was sparked by the protests scrutinizing police actions.

Related: ‘It’s time to change:’ Police in Pinellas to partner on use-of-force investigations

Rep. Cord Byrd, a Republican who was the chair of the criminal justice and public safety subcommittee, said the committee took more than two dozen bills and worked to knit them into a piece of united legislation.

“The bill came out late in session, but the reason was so that we tried to incorporate as many of the concepts that had the broadest appeal possible,” he said.

Byrd said the bill sets a standard floor for agencies, something that he hopes will build Floridians’ trust in law enforcement.

He said getting unanimous support for the bill in a hyperpartisan environment was difficult but showed that such efforts are possible.

“We took the ideas, we listened and that shows that we’re capable of doing it when we want to,” Byrd said.

Bracy said he feels there were certain plays made to run up the clock to avoid the bill being more expansive, even after early negotiations ruled out things like outright bans on chokeholds.

“I think the negotiations went on throughout session and the later it got, the more there was concern that nothing would be done,” Bracy said. “And I think that was by design, to be honest, I think the speaker knew I would prefer to have gone further.”

Bracy said he’s not sure if the bipartisan collaboration on this bill heralds anything for the future.

“I don’t know if that momentum carries to next year,” he said. “I will continue to push for more, but for us to get consensus like that, I don’t know if we can do it again.”