By Jim Turner, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — A bipartisan proposal to add hiring standards and bolster use-of-force training for police and correctional officers began moving forward Thursday in the House.
With the measure deemed a starting point for further talks, the Judiciary Committee unanimously supported the proposal (PCB JDC 21-01) by Rep. Cord Byrd, R-Neptune Beach. In part, it would require people applying for law-enforcement positions to disclose if they are subject to pending investigations or if they left prior criminal justice jobs while under investigation.
Byrd said the proposal, which has emerged with little more than two weeks left in the legislative session, is intended to instill “trust” in law enforcement.
“This (bill) reflects the work in conversations over many months, with and between lawmakers, law enforcement and citizens in a bipartisan effort to promote best law-enforcement practices, to make them uniform throughout the state,” Byrd said.
The proposal also comes as police use of force has faced heavy scrutiny — and spurred protests — across the country during the past year. That scrutiny, in part, has stemmed from the May 2020 death of George Floyd after then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on the Black man’s neck for more than eight minutes. Chauvin is on trial in the death.
Members of the Florida Legislative Black Caucus said Thursday that the House proposal would set up needed conversations to make communities safer while also helping to lift up law enforcement. The proposal was supported by law-enforcement organizations, along with the groups such as the Florida State Conference of the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union.
“We know our law enforcement officers put their lives on the line every single day, protecting people,” said Rep. Fentrice Driskell, a Tampa Democrat who is Black. “But, we also know that communities of color don’t always feel policed as fairly, and they feel that lack of trust. So, what can we do to try to help bridge that gap?”
Part of the House proposal would require the state Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission to develop basic skills training for use of force. Also, law enforcement and correctional agencies would be required to enact policies on use of force, including de-escalation techniques.
Rep. Dianne Hart, D-Tampa, said the proposal would assist in needed prison reform.
“I look forward to being able to tell people in our facilities as I continue to visit, that we’re doing everything we can to make things better for each and every one of them,” Hart said.
The bill has been quietly in the works for months while a fierce debate has played out over one of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ top legislative priorities (HB 1), which would create a new crime of “mob intimidation,” enhance penalties on riot-related offenses and make it harder for municipalities to trim spending on law enforcement. The Senate could give final approval to that bill Thursday night.
Rep. Ramon Alexander, D-Tallahassee, recalled being on the phone for several hours with House Speaker Chris Sprowls after Floyd’s death in May, as the Palm Harbor Republican reached out to understand Alexander’s perspective.
“We have people that are ideologues and a lot of folks that are stuck in their ways, and regardless of what you bring forward, it will never be good enough for them,” Alexander, who is Black, said. “I think there has to be a level of pragmatism in this process as we move forward. Because yelling at each other, and going back and forth, isn’t going to accomplish anything.”
As part of the use-of-force training and policies, the measure seeks to limit the use of chokeholds to circumstances when law-enforcement officers perceive immediate threats of serious bodily injury or death to themselves or other people. Also, the policies would require on-duty officers to — based upon the circumstances — intervene when they witness other officers using or attempting to use excessive force.
Officers would also be required to render medical assistance following use of force when it is evident people being detained are injured or require medical attention. Training would also be designed to help officers recognize and engage appropriately with people who have substance-abuse disorders or mental illnesses.
“This is what we need to do. We need to work together,” said Rep. Chuck Brannan, a Macclenny Republican who is a retired chief investigator for the Baker County Sheriff’s Office. “I hope this is an enlightening experience to show everybody, because police have gotten such a bad black eye over the last year, that they are willing to work to do the right thing.”
Other parts of the proposal include:
— Law enforcement or correctional agencies would be required to maintain officers’ employment information for at least five years following termination, resignation or retirement.
— Independent reviews, with findings reported to state attorneys, would be conducted in use-of-force incidents involving deaths or intentional discharges of firearms that result in injuries or deaths
— Law enforcement agencies would have to report quarterly to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement all use-of-force incidents involving serious bodily injury, deaths or when firearms are discharged at someone.