‘A message has to be sent’: FL lawmakers race to pass police reforms in final days

Ana Ceballos
·6 min read

Days after a jury convicted former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in the murder of George Floyd, Florida lawmakers are racing to push through a police reform package that has gained renewed momentum in the final days of the legislative session.

The Florida House, a chamber dominated by Republicans, is expected to vote on a bill Monday that would set minimum statewide use-of-force standards for Florida law enforcement officers. The bill, negotiated with the Florida Legislative Black Caucus, 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.

“All of this is designed for one goal, and that is to make sure that people have confidence in policing and in their community,” House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, told reporters on Thursday.

The push comes in the direct aftermath of Chauvin’s conviction and almost a year after Floyd’s death set off a wave of protests that called for police reforms. But in Florida, where Republican lawmakers and Gov. Ron DeSantis have also responded to last summer’s protests with an “anti-riot” bill, police reform laws have had to navigate some political minefields.

Republican leaders, for instance, have been careful to not tie the police reform package in the Legislature too directly to the events of last summer, and have mostly focused on the broad need to build confidence in policing. House and Senate Democrats by comparison often mention Floyd’s death or Chauvin’s conviction when talking about the need for such reforms.

“I think it is really important, especially in light of the verdict, that we send a message that the way we have done policing in the past is something that has to change,” said Sen. Randolph Bracy, an Orlando Democrat who is leading police reform negotiations on behalf of the Senate.

Senate pulls a switch

In the Senate there was bipartisan support for a bill (SB 1970) that called for stricter standards on choke holds than legislation in the House, and that would have required officers to undergo “implicit bias” training.

But Senate President Wilton Simpson on Wednesday said he decided to go around that bill and its sponsor, Sen. Jason Pizzo of Miami, and instead tapped Bracy to lead the effort and “bring it in for a landing.”

By not hearing Pizzo’s bill, Simpson delayed the process for hearing a police reform bill in the Senate because now the House bill must have a committee hearing in the last week of session, when schedules are packed and bills can move and die fast.

Bracy told the Herald/Times on Friday that Senate leaders have indicated to him that they plan to hold a hearing for the House bill “immediately” after its passage. If the Senate receives it, Bracy said he believes “most, if not all senators” will vote in favor of the measure.

Bracy does not have much room — or time — to negotiate changes to the bill, which has been tightly negotiated by Sprowls, a former prosecutor and son of a police officer who has been reluctant to support more sweeping criminal justice reform packages authored by the Senate.

House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R- Palm Harbor, speaks during the house session of the Florida Legislature at the Capitol in Tallahassee on Tuesday, March 2, 2021.
House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R- Palm Harbor, speaks during the house session of the Florida Legislature at the Capitol in Tallahassee on Tuesday, March 2, 2021.

“I think every member of the Senate would like for the bill to go further … but we kind of have a feeling of what the House will take and what they won’t take,” Bracy told the Herald/Times in an interview.

House Judiciary Committee Vice Chair Cord Byrd, the sponsor of the House bill, said he is “confident” the Legislature will pass and send the House bill to DeSantis. The governor’s position on the bill is unknown. His office has not responded to several requests seeking comment on whether he would support police reforms. But both Byrd and Bracy say they believe DeSantis would be supportive.

Byrd, a conservative lawmaker who has sponsored some of the governor’s priorities in the past, negotiated the language in the bill with the Black Caucus. He said the end product incorporates the ideas of 24 bills filed by 11 different Democrats in the Legislature. Rep. Fentrice Driskell, a Tampa Democrat who served as the lead negotiator for the Black Caucus, said the end product was “nothing short of a miracle.”

Support from police organizations

The bill, backed by virtually every key statewide law enforcement organization including the Florida Sheriffs Association, the Florida Police Chiefs Association and the Florida Police Benevolent Association, is expected to pass the House with broad bipartisan support.

If it is 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.”

If a law enforcement agency wants to further restrict the practice— like in Miami-Dade County, where police banned it — the bill would allow it.

Furthermore, the bill would require on-duty officers to intervene when another officer is using excessive force. It also would require independent investigations to be conducted when an officer kills someone either by using force or firing a weapon, a provision touted by Sprowls on Thursday.

Aside from police training, the bill would require the state to collect data on use-of-force cases; improve record-keeping on police officers’ terminations, resignations or retirements; and ban the arrests of children under the age of 7 unless they commit a forcible felony.

Pizzo’s bill, which was pushed by Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, was stricter than the House on training standards. It would have banned choke holds except in a “deadly force situation,” a far higher threshold than what the House has proposed.

The bill also would have required officers to be trained for implicit bias, attitudes and stereotypes that cause people to act and make decisions in a subconscious manner toward “diverse communities,” something the House bill does not contemplate. Such training has become a major talking point in the recent police reform movement, largely focused on ending police violence against Black Americans.

Bracy said he prefers the Senate’s language, noting that the House’s choke-hold standard is “close to the status quo.” But, he appears ready to take up the House bill as is in order to pass legislation that can start setting minimum training standards for police.

“I think this is something that should have happened a long time ago. We have so far to go,” Bracy said. “This bill could have been a lot more. We could have done a lot more, but it is a step.”