Florida House unanimously passes police reform bill

Lawmakers want to help build a bridge between police and the Black community.

click to enlarge TPD beating protesters blocking traffic on Dale Mabry last July. - Photo by Chandler Culotta
Photo by Chandler Culotta
TPD beating protesters blocking traffic on Dale Mabry last July.

The House has unanimously approved legislation to prevent excessive use of force by police officers.

Despite quick turnaround on the legislation, which wasn’t submitted until last week, the bill (HB 7051) is the product of months of negotiations between House leadership, the Florida Legislative Black Caucus and stakeholders like law enforcement.

Lawmakers throughout the committee process approved the measure, carried by Reps. Cord Byrd, a Republican, and Fentrice Driskell, a Democrat, unanimously.

Proponents say the bipartisan measure would help restore public trust in the police.

“With House Bill 7051, we as a Legislature can work to build that bridge,” Driskell said. “That’s why the accountability measures and transparency measure in 7051 are so important, because those truly are the underpinnings of trust, and if we can build more trust between these two communities, that’s how we build a better relationship.”

This month, lawmakers considered the anti-riot bill (HB 1), Republicans’ measure against violent protests that Democrats and other critics say will disproportionately affect minority protesters.

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed that measure into law a week ago, the day before a Minnesota court convicted Derek Chauvin of killing George Floyd when he knelt on his neck in May. That killing sparked protests, some of which turned violent, that prompted DeSantis to ask for legislation.

Byrd, the police reform bill’s primary sponsor, has been working on that legislation since police in Georgia fatally shot Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was unarmed and on a jog in February 2020.

In an interview with Florida Politics, Byrd acknowledged the national conversation around law enforcement and freedom of speech. The the anti-riot and policing bills’ overarching theme is “public safety,” the Neptune Beach Republican said.

“For those people who are exercising their First Amendment rights and those people who are engaging in criminal activities, we’re going to draw a bright line between those two,” Byrd added. “Part and parcel of that is how law enforcement acts and responds when they engage with citizens.”

The bill includes several police reform proposals the Legislative Black Caucus presented ahead of Session.

“I remember saying, we need service, we need to be protected and we need to know that every law enforcement officer on the street is mentally healthy, astute and that they know not to use deadly force and not to use deadly chokeholds when they are not undeniably necessary,” Jacksonville Democratic Rep. Tracie Davis said.

Tampa Democratic Rep. Dianne Hart called the bill a step in the right direction toward fixing the state’s correctional system.

“This is a first step, but this is really a great example of what this process is about and what it could be, when we come together, and we start at one point, but we find some common ground,” added House Democratic Co-leader Bobby DuBose.

The police reform bill would call for basic training on proportional use of force, including de-escalation techniques and intervening in another officer’s excessive use of force and chokeholds. Chokeholds, which became central to national conversations around the use of force after Floyd’s death, could only be used when an “officer perceives an immediate threat of serious bodily injury or death to themselves or another person,” the bill outlines.

Amendments added Friday would clarify that law enforcement agencies could make more stringent policies, including banning chokeholds if they choose.

Additionally, pending applicants for law enforcement and correctional officer positions would have to disclose any pending investigation against them and whether they resigned from their previous role during an investigation. Agencies would keep records on past officers for at least five years after the officer leaves the agency.

Each law enforcement agency must also, each quarter, report data on use of force that results in injury, death or discharge of a firearm.

The legislation also creates the “Kaia Rolle Act,” which would prevent children younger than 7 from being arrested or charged with crimes that aren’t forcible felonies. Both chambers passed similar legislation last year, but the broader school safety bill that contained that language died on the regular Session’s final day after the then-developing COVID-19 pandemic helped derail negotiations.

On Friday, Byrd recognized Democrats and their bills that became part of the final package. Legislation from Driskell, Democratic Leader Bobby Dubose, and Reps. Tracie Davis, Nicholas Duran, Christine Hunschofsky, Dotie Joseph, Travaris McCurdy, Anika Omphroy, Geraldine Thompson and Patricia Williams covered employment standards, training, chokeholds, the duty to intervene, medical assistance, use of force data and the minimum age for arrest.

There is no direct companion measure on the Senate side. However, Senate President Wilton Simpson earlier this month told reporters he would reference that bill directly to one committee, as he did with the anti-riot bill. Senators have been working with the House on negotiating the policing deal, he added.

“I believe we will be very satisfied with the bill they send us,” Simpson said.

This article first appeared at Florida Politics

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