Black lawmakers insist policing reforms to make FL safer for all ‘cannot wait’

Rep. Fentrice Driskell, flanked by Sen. Perry Thurston, Rep. Patricia Williams and other lawmakers in the Florida Legislative Black Caucus, insist their police-reform bills should be given hearings. Screenshot: The Florida Channel

Reforms making policing and policed communities safer “cannot wait,” Black Florida lawmakers said Tuesday in announcing measures they intend to push as a caucus in the 2021 Florida Legislature.

“This legislation simply cannot wait,” said Hillsborough County Rep. Fentrice Driskell, calling on Republicans controlling the Florida Senate and House of Representatives to schedule hearings on numerous police-reform bills sponsored by the Florida Legislative Black Caucus. The caucus has named its campaign #HearTheBills.

“There must be reforms in how people are treated,” said Palm Beach County Sen. Bobby Powell, the caucus chairman, adding that he wants the bills to be given fair hearings and is cautiously optimistic that Republican leaders will cooperate.

A dozen Democratic lawmakers stood together, wearing masks, during a press conference announcing various reforms that would “reimagine” law enforcement in Florida — not by defunding or dismantling it, but by raising training standards, tracking incidents of police violence, and banning dangerous practices such as chokeholds.

Additionally, proposed bills would require police to promptly report use of excessive force by colleagues and use body cameras and dashboard cameras; block use of military-grade weapons and equipment against protesters; ban arrests of children as young as 10; and denounce white supremacy.

“Let’s talk about valuing Black lives when law enforcement encounters Black people,” said Orange County Rep. Geraldine Thompson, sponsoring a bill to require collection of data on excessive force and tracking of chronically violent officers.

She noted that Derek Chauvin, a Minnesota police officer accused of murdering George Floyd in May, had 15 prior complaints of excessive force before the deadly incident that set off a summer of Black Lives Matter protests.

Caucus members recited the names of unarmed Black people killed by law enforcement officers in 2020 and names of a just a few killed by armed vigilantes, including Ahmaud Arbery and Trayvon Martin.

House Democratic co-chair Evan Jenne said that reimagining and reforming law enforcement is not an effort to abolish it.

“No one is pushing to defund the police,” Jenne said. “[These bills] are not antagonistic against law enforcement officers. They’re not antagonist against anyone. They’re going to protect people.

“There’s nothing in there that’s going to make our streets less safe. If anything, it’s going to make Florida a place that’s more safe for all of its citizens.”

The Phoenix previewed some of the reform measures and countermeasures — including House Bill 1, Gov. DeSantis’ so-called “anti-mob” legislation — last week in this story.

The story said that 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.

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.