Nearly a year after George Floyd’s death, a start for police reforms in FL — but, ‘we have a long way to go’

"Stop the Steal" protesters clashed with counter protesters on Nov. 13 at Black Lives Matter Plaza near the White House. Credit: Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

Eleven months after the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer and a recent incident in Minnesota involving the death of Daunte Wright, Florida lawmakers have just begun to consider police reforms that could become law, with two weeks remaining in the legislative session.

Black lawmakers from the Florida Legislative Black Caucus and GOP House leaders have agreed on a bill aimed at addressing a variety of policing procedures that criminal justice advocates say disproportionately impact communities of color.

The measures include requiring stricter background checks for law enforcement applicants and reducing the use of the choke hold to only threatening circumstances.

Still, those measures aren’t enough, according to civil rights officials, law  enforcement reform advocates and some state lawmakers themselves.

“Florida has a long way to go on police reforms and while this is at least a first step in the right direction, we need leaps and bounds. We need to amend the police bill of rights,” said Kara Gross, legislative director and senior policy counsel at the ACLU of Florida, said in an email to the Phoenix.

State Sen. Shevrin Jones, a Democrat who is a member of the Black Caucus, agrees, saying, “we have a long way to go, but one step is better than no step.”

The bigger goal is about developing trust between communities of color in the state and law enforcement agencies, said Jones, who represents part of Broward County.

In a text message to the Phoenix, Jones said: “I believe it is important to understand that Black caucus members represent some of the most marginalized people in Florida, and while 90 percent of us are in the minority of the Legislature, it doesn’t mean that we sit back and not fight to represent our people. Compromise is good, but real CHANGE is even better.”

Some law enforcement agencies in the state had already made some changes to its use-of-force policies following controversy from the brutal death of Floyd, who died at the hands of a Minnesota police officer who knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes. The former officer, Derek Chauvin, has been on trial for two weeks now.

For instance, the Miami-Dade Police Department had banned choke holds in June of 2020, according to AP News. That report said Alfredo Ramirez, director of the Miami-Dade Police Department, made the decision “based on feedback from the community and policing professionals.”

In Tallahassee, the bill was unanimously approved in the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday, but it will need additional approvals in the full House and Senate.

The choke hold procedure in the bill had not been fully addressed in state law, according to Mike Adkinson, a past president of the Florida Sheriffs Association who said he condemns the use of choke holds by law enforcement officers.

“Unless it’s a life-or-death struggle, there is no reason to do that… this is trying to get everybody on the same page in what is considered best practices,” he said.

As to the overall bill, “I think everybody had been working on it…It is a wide-ranging bill, it covers multiple things for accountability. Is it perfect? Absolutely not. But is it substantive? absolutely,” Adkinson said in a phone conversation with the Florida Phoenix.

The measure related to choke holds would authorize law enforcement agencies to develop policies for officers to use choke holds only when an “officer perceives an immediate threat of serious bodily injury or death to themselves or another person.”

According to the bill analysis, de-escalation training is used to prevent any injuries to the officer or the public and “involves the use of effective communication and active listening skills in order to minimize the need for physical force.”

However, law enforcement officers in Florida are already required to complete certain trainings developed by The Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission, which comprises sheriffs, police chiefs, law enforcement officers and others. For example, officers must complete 26-152 hours of use of force training and 22-90 hours of de-escalation training.

Adkinson of Walton County pointed to a major accomplishment of the bill that would mandate investigations involving excessive use of force and annual reporting on excessive use of force by law enforcement officers. “That’s a big deal…that keeps all of us from getting bad apples,” he said.

Black lawmakers in the caucus had also been working with the law enforcement community on the proposals for “over the course of several months,” State Rep. Fentrice Driskell said during Thursday’s meeting. The caucus members had filed several bills during the session on police reforms, but they didn’t get heard.

“These conversations for me started before the George Floyd (incident). Trust in our public institution is vital,” said state Rep. Cord Byrd, a Republican representing part of Nassau and Duval counties. He is the vice chair of the House Judiciary Committee, and presented and explained the bill during the Thursday meeting.

Driskell, a Democrat representing part of Hillsborough County, told the Phoenix in a phone conversation Thursday that the bill is considered a compromise because “each side was coming to the table with different perspectives and ideas” on police reform.

“I mean last summer in the wake of the murder of George Floyd the Black Caucus started to meet… we thought about what we can do in terms of policy, what we can do in terms of trying to make positive change,” she added.

“We know our law enforcement officers put their lives on the live every single day, but we also know that communities of color do not always feel policed as fairly. I am very proud of this work product.”

Moné Holder, Senior Director of Advocacy & Programs at Florida Rising, a statewide organization that fights for racial justice, said in an email to the Phoenix:
“This proposal is only before us due to those who take the streets for Black lives, and the persistence of those lawmakers who march with us, like state Rep. Fentrice Driskell and her colleagues of the Legislative Black Caucus. We urge the Legislature to stand with Black lives in every instance. Embrace bipartisan criminal justice reform, and reject Jim Crow policies like Republican-led anti-protest laws and voter suppression laws.”