FL Legislature 2021: Political climate bristling with tension about violence, racism, policing and gun rights

Protesters demonstrated in Columbus, Ohio, in solidarity with nationwide protests against the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman. Credit: Matthew Hatcher/Getty Images

Florida’s approach to law enforcement and racial justice will be on trial in the upcoming legislative session, as lawmakers react to widespread racial unrest last summer and the Jan. 6 white-nationalist insurrection that left five people dead in the United States Capitol.

More than ever, state lawmakers say, conventional law and order will intersect with alleged racial bias in policing, criminal prosecution and sentencing.

Democrats in the Florida House and Senate are rolling out measures they say are needed to curb excessive use of force by police, legalized use of lethal force by civilians, and a criminal justice framework skewed against minorities.

Key Republicans in the chambers say they see room to tweak public policy in those areas but that it is law and order that is most in danger.

Reflecting a divided and distrustful nation, the Florida Legislature faces a difficult challenge in this arena.

Peaceful protests and violent mobs

Black Lives Matter demonstrators faced a phalanx of law enforcement officers during protests on June 1, 2020, in Washington, D.C., unlike the easily overrun police presence that allowed pro-Trump rioters into the nation’s Capitol on Jan. 6. Credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Lawmakers’ anti-mob legislation, pushed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, is No. 1 out of the gate this session.

It aims to fend off unrest like that seen in Portland, Ore., and Minneapolis, Minn., following the choke-hold killing of George Floyd in May. Floyd, a black man believed to have passed a counterfeit $20 bill, suffocated when police leaned on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

Florida and most other states did not experience violence from Black Lives Matter protests, as reported by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project. But riots elsewhere – including fires, looting, and vandalism of Confederate monuments  — prompted moves around the country to crack down on demonstrations, amid questions about who actually initiated the disorder.

Civil rights groups condemn the anti-mob legislation saying it will create penalties so harsh that it would stifle even peaceful demonstrations, while he has unveiled nothing in the way of curbing police brutality against people of color.

Key provisions of the legislation would prevent any defunding of law enforcement agencies, broadly expand penalties against people affiliated with a protest that becomes “disorderly,” further criminalize the damaging of historical monuments, and provide a legal defense for motorists who “accidentally” run over a protester obstructing a public roadway.

House Criminal Justice Committee Chairman Cord Byrd, a Republican representing parts of Nassau and Duval counties, told the Phoenix, “I hear and understand the concerns” of minorities demanding equitable treatment.

But foremost, he said, lawmakers’ top constitutional obligation is to preserve public safety.

Byrd said he applauds the governor’s push for the anti-mob legislation, but also supports efforts to hire better police candidates, train them better in de-escalation of conflict, scrutinize use of force, and better capture criminal-justice data that could lead to policy changes.

Stand Your Ground

Today, Feb. 5, is Trayvon Martin’s birthday. He would have been 26 years old, but he was killed at the age of 17 by a gunman who stalked him in a vehicle and confronted him while the unarmed teen-ager walked down a public sidewalk in Sanford in broad daylight.

The gunman, George Zimmerman, was acquitted of murder by way of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” defense, arguing that when he confronted Martin, the teenager fought him, causing Zimmerman to fear for his life and fire.

Protesters around the country demanded justice for Trayvon Martin, whose killer was acquitted under Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. Martin was fatally shot in 2012 at the age of 17. Credit: Monique Wingate, WikiMedia Commons

Black lawmakers Sen. Shevrin Jones, a Democrat representing parts of Broward County and Miami-Dade, and Rep. Michelle Rayner, a Democrat representing parts of Hillsborough, Manatee and Pinellas counties, hope this year they will succeed in repealing the 2005 Stand Your Ground law. They say it promotes vigilante behavior that often is deadly, as in the Martin-Zimmerman killing and others.

Chryl Anderson, a volunteer with the Florida chapter of grassroots advocacy group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, heartily supports their efforts to repeal Stand Your Ground.

“People still don’t see the reality of gun violence,” Anderson said in a telephone conference with the bill sponsors. “I clearly can see how white supremacy and how what’s going on with our gun laws can easily take [my grandchildren’s] lives, and I refuse to allow that.”

DeSantis originally included language in his “anti-mob” legislation to expand Stand Your Ground protections to a person who kills someone believed to be engaged in looting or property damage in proximity to a demonstration. The American Civil Liberties Union and others condemned that provision, saying it would promote bloodshed, and DeSantis withdrew it.

Gun enthusiasts are expected to oppose the repeal.

Prison reform

Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Pinellas County Republican, and others are again pushing for passage of sentencing reforms that would drastically reduce the number of people sent to prison and drastically increase the number released early to supervised custody and alternative programs.

Families and friends of Florida inmates rally in the Capitol in 2020 to call for prison sentencing reform. At the podium are Rep. Dianne Hart and Sen. Randolph Bracy. Credit: Laura Cassels

With incarceration being the most expensive way to conduct corrections, parties such as conservative Koch Industries have joined civil rights and inmate-advocacy groups to call for alternatives that are cheaper, more effective and more humane.

Last year, Sen. Jason Pizzo, a Miami-Dade Democrat and now chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, and Brandes, vice chair, pushed reforms such as “Second Look” sentencing reviews for offenders convicted as juveniles, early release of elderly and gravely ill inmates, and expanded compensation for people wrongfully convicted and imprisoned. They advanced well in the Senate but died of neglect in the more conservative House of Representatives.

Brandes, Pizzo and others say the reforms are essential to cure racial inequities in prison sentencing and restore families torn apart by imprisonment. They cite state analyses that conclude non-prison programs focused on substance abuse treatment, mental health care, education and job skills work better for most offenders to prevent criminal behavior and to recover from it.

Other legislation in the works

“We’re getting a lot of bills referred to my committee,” said Byrd, chair of the House Criminal Justice Committee.

“At the top of that list is criminal data reporting.”

At the top of Senate Democratic Leader Gary Farmer’s priority list for public safety is a ban on possessing or selling assault weapons or large-capacity magazines of ammunition. His district is in Broward County, where 17 students and teachers were murdered on Valentine’s Day 2018 at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland by a gunman with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle.

Lawmakers in each party are sponsoring a flurry of related bills, ranging from allowing firearms to be carried in legislative sessions and on campuses, and abolishing licensing required to carry a concealed firearm, to requiring law-enforcement officers statewide to wear body cameras.