Home News DeSantis signs bill limiting civilian police oversight committees in Florida

DeSantis signs bill limiting civilian police oversight committees in Florida

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Source: Miami Beach Police Instagram


Alexandra Glorioso, Olivia George
Miami Herald

Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday signed a bill limiting civilian investigations by government-affiliated boards into the behavior of local law enforcement officers, including in Miami, St. Petersburg and Tampa.

The law, which takes effect in July, has consequences for civilian oversight panels that in more than 20 Florida counties and cities look into citizen complaints against officers by using public records and witness interviews and by auditing police investigations. Some boards, which make recommendations about discipline, were created by voters, others by government officials following policing controversies.

Under the bill, HB 601, these organizations will now largely be prohibited from receiving and following up on complaints. Members and employees of agencies in in Miami and Tampa told the Herald/Times that they’re trying to determine exactly what the legislation means for their future.

“The best thing is that this information has now come to some level of finality,” said Rodney Jacobs Jr., executive director of the Miami Civilian Oversight Panel.

Advocates for increased scrutiny of police have criticized the legislation, which St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch recently referred to as one of the state’s “blanket solutions to problems that don’t exist.” Kara Gross, the legislative director and senior policy counsel for ACLU Florida, said in a statement on Friday that the new law “seeks to undermine the work local communities across Florida have put into attempting to increase trust between residents and law enforcement.”

But police unions and law enforcement officials applauded the proposal, with DeSantis describing police review boards on Friday as a “political weapon” at the bill signing in St. Augustine at the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office.

“They’ll set up these things called citizen review boards, usually in these very-tilted-politically jurisdictions,” DeSantis said. “They’ll stack it with activists, and they’ll just start reviewing things and trying to put people under the gun even if there’s no basis to do that.”

Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Mark Glass said at the press conference that ACLU Florida’s criticism that the new legislation would “impede the community with law enforcement” was wrong.

“If they would pay attention to how our state works, we have review boards. We have the criminal justice standards and training commission that deals with every incident that’s referred,” said Glass. “Every agency has an internal affairs, and if they don’t they utilize another agency’s internal affairs, to investigate an incident.”

Glass added: “These men and women do not need to be scrutinized again and again by a committee that has no idea what they’re talking about.”

DO LOCAL CIVILIAN PANELS DISCIPLINE COPS?

While some civilian panels have additional authority, such as in the city of Miami, to subpoena private businesses for surveillance footage or documents, they don’t have the ability to discipline an officer, said Jacobs.

“I can tell you that no board has the ability to discipline an officer due to the law enforcement officer’s bill of rights,” said Jacobs, whose panel was created by Miami voters in 2001, in an interview with the Herald/Times on Friday.

But Jacobs wouldn’t go so far as to say the civilian review boards will be shut down come July 1 when the bill goes into effect. They may still have the ability to audit police investigations, for instance. His organization is still reviewing the new legislation.

The bill also empowers county sheriffs to establish their own civilian oversight boards “to review the policies and procedures of his or her office and its subdivisions.” That board “must be composed of at least three and up to seven members appointed by the sheriff, one of which shall be a retired law enforcement officer.” It’s unclear whether these sheriff-controlled boards will replace the citizen oversight panels, merge with them, or simply function separately, Jacobs said.

When the law is implemented it will affect civilian oversight work in 21 cities, according to a Senate bill analysis, including several in West Central and South Florida: Bradenton, Fort Lauderdale, Key West, Miami, North Miami Beach, St. Petersburg, Tampa and West Palm Beach. Miami-Dade County also has an Independent Civilian Panel.

Carolyn Hepburn-Collins, a member of Tampa’s Citizen Review Board and past president of the Hillsborough County branch of the NAACP, said she does not foresee the legislation signed Friday by the governor hindering the board’s activity.

“We do not investigate the Tampa Police Department,” she said. “We review closed investigations done by the police department itself. Then we say if we agree or disagree with the outcome and look for potential avenues for policy and procedure change.”

But Brandon Barclay, president of the Tampa Police Benevolent Association, cautioned that interpretation, saying the legislation wouldn’t allow “business as usual.”

He said the legislation is a useful step that will encourage more uniformity statewide, instead of the current patchwork of boards which have a range of structures and abilities. But he added that without review boards, departments have other checks and balances in place to investigate bad behavior and implement improvements, including internal affairs units and the state’s Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission.

“When people say there is no oversight, it is blatantly absurd,” he said.

In Tampa, the Citizens Review Board formed in 2015 after a Tampa Bay Times investigation revealed that Tampa police were disproportionately ticketing Black bicyclists.

Several years of controversy followed Tampa’s board formation, with disagreements about who should appoint its members and whether it should have subpoena power and its own attorney. Former Mayor Bob Buckhorn and Mayor Jane Castor, a former Tampa police chief, opposed expanded powers and sought more control over membership.

The board does not have subpoena power. It was in the process of hiring its own attorney, but paused the process while this legislation made its way through state government.

Tampa City Council members passed an ordinance giving the board access to their own lawyer last April, which advocates say is necessary to prevent a conflict of interest if there is litigation against the city. The move came after Mayor Castor vetoed an effort to put the question to voters.

“Police departments require collaboration and trust from the community,” Castor said in a written statement on Friday, adding that civilian review boards help foster that trust and that Tampa’s review board has “always had an excellent working relationship with the Tampa Police Department.”

©2024 Miami Herald. Visit miamiherald.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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