By Ryan Dailey, The News Service of Tallahassee
TALLAHASSEE — Following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in May and the ensuing summer of nationwide protests, the Florida Legislative Black Caucus is pushing a slew of bills for the 2021 legislative session that members say “promote fair and just” police reforms.
Among the proposals are bills that would mandate body cameras be worn by officers in every Florida law enforcement agency, set a minimum standard for police training in de-escalation tactics and require the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to keep a database on excessive use of force by officers.
Whether the measures will get hearings in the Republican-controlled Legislature remains in question, as Democrats debuted the sweeping reform package with the hashtag #HearTheBills.
“If you are honest about wanting to improve policing in this state, about supporting good law enforcement officers and making our communities safer, you’ll give these ideas a chance to be heard,” House Minority Co-leader, Bobby DuBose, D-Fort Lauderdale, said at a news conference Tuesday.
Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, is co-sponsoring bills (SB 942 and HB 647) with Rep. Tracie Davis, D-Jacksonville, that Gibson said would create “a floor for training” at law enforcement agencies, including setting standards for instructing officers on excessive use of force and “vascular neck restraints.”
“We want to make sure there is humane treatment. Not every person of color is automatically wrong or guilty of something. That is the premise, it seems to be, as we exist today,” Gibson said.
Protests broke out across the country last year about police treatment of Black people after Floyd died when Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck during an arrest.
Mirroring the national conversation, the proposals announced Tuesday include limiting offenses for which a “no-knock warrant” can be issued (HB 521 and SB 868) and prohibiting law-enforcement agencies from buying surplus military equipment (HB 187 and SB 878).
Another proposal (HB 6057), filed by Rep. Omari Hardy, D-West Palm Beach, looks to overhaul a “police bill of rights” in state law to try to weed out what a Democratic summary of the bills called “loopholes … that make it nearly impossible to hold bad officers accountable.”
House Democratic leaders, however, are stressing that the proposals would not seek to defund the police. Calls by some groups to defund the police became a hot-button political issue during last year’s election campaigns, with Republicans using the issue to criticize Democrats.
“If you really look at these policies, they’re not antagonistic towards law enforcement officers, they’re not antagonistic towards anyone … they’re going to protect people in communities of color. And one thing I don’t think folks are understanding is, they’re also going to protect our law enforcement officers,” House Minority Co-leader Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach, said.
Some members of the Black caucus, like Rep. Dotie Joseph, D-North Miami, sounded hopeful Tuesday that achieving common ground with Republican lawmakers and Gov. Ron DeSantis on policing measures is possible.
“While we have a marked difference of opinion with the governor on a number of issues, I think a lot of the policies that we’ve identified throughout the entire caucus, some of those are some that we may be able to reach some kind of dialogue with the governor,” Joseph said.
But the Democratic lawmakers’ proposals come as Republicans are pushing legislation in the vein of “law and order,” a rallying cry of former President Donald Trump and a centerpiece of DeSantis’ priorities heading into the 2021 session, which starts March 2.
A Republican measure that has grabbed national attention has been dubbed “anti-riot” legislation (HB 1 and SB 484) The measure was filed in both chambers on Jan. 6, the day pro-Trump rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol, but DeSantis had teased legislation aimed at cracking down on violent protests since September.
“It doesn’t matter what banner you are flying under. The violence is wrong. The rioting and the disorder is wrong. We are not going to tolerate it in Florida. I hope maybe now we will get even more support for my legislation,” DeSantis said during a news conference Jan. 7.
But Black lawmakers plan to “fiercely fight against that bill,” Rep. Fentrice Driskell , D-Tampa, said Tuesday. Opponents of the measure say it is unnecessary and will make Black people even more vulnerable to the whims of law enforcement officers.
The News Service of Florida sought comment from GOP leaders of committees that deal with policing and criminal justice but had not received responses early Tuesday afternoon.