From curbing chokeholds to flagging bad cops, the FL House advances police reforms

Credit: David McNew / Getty Images

Update: The Florida House approved a package of policing reforms 113-0 Monday afternoon in a rare show of bipartisanship. It mandates higher standards, more transparency and more accountability regarding police use of force. The lead sponsor, Rep. Fentrice Driskell said in closing:

“In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, the killing of Breonna Taylor and too many unarmed Black people to name, the Florida Legislative Black Caucus … knew that we needed to do something this session in response to our communities’ outcry for help. The result was a bevy of policy platforms dedicated to supporting fair and just policing.

“We have law enforcement officers who put their lives on the line for other people each and every single day. … Yet we know that many communities of color don’t always feel that they’re policed fairly.

“Let’s send a strong message to our law enforcement community in Florida that we support them, and let’s send a message to communities all around the state that we support them as well.”

A package of police reforms that emerged late in the 2021 legislative session is expected to advance Monday to curb law enforcement violence.

The vote in the state House represents some but not all of the reforms proposed by various members of the Florida Legislative Black Caucus in February. If approved by the House, the legislation would be sent to the Senate for consideration.

“I do believe it’s an excellent first step,” said Rep. Fentrice Driskell, a Hillsborough County Democrat and House Democratic policy chair, who led negotiations with Republican leaders to craft the compromise this package represents. Driskell said in February that people of color are being killed needlessly due to excessive police use of force and that reforms “cannot wait” any longer.

Two key provisions omitted from the proposed reforms would have required law enforcement officers to wear body cameras and use dashboard cameras, with the state helping pay for them, and rehabilitative training for veteran officers.

Driskell said she wants future legislation to include those provisions and said she feels encouraged that federal law enforcement agencies and some local ones recognize the need for less-violent policing.

“It’s a pathway forward,” Driskell said. Whether the Senate will accept or amend the bill was not clear Monday morning.

The police reform package, known as House Bill 7051, includes restricting use of chokeholds –the kind of tactic that led to the death of George Floyd in 2020. Bystanders documented those and other police killings on video, sparking public protests and swelling the ranks of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The proposed police reforms call for higher standards for hiring, training and tracking law enforcement officers in order to reduce violence and to flag officers with patterns of undue violence.

Prospective officers must disclose if they have been investigated, punished or fired for use of excessive force in a previous police job, and their employers would be required to maintain records on an officer’s performance on duty for at least five years.

The state’s criminal-justice standards and training commission would be required to develop basic skills training regarding use of force, and law enforcement agencies would be required to develop and implement these policies:

/ Limit use of force

/ Promote alternatives to use of force, specifically including de-escalation to reduce tension between police and the policed that can erupt into violence

/ Require officers to intervene when they see a fellow officer using excessive force

/ Require officers to render medical assistance to a person injured by use of force

/ Train officers to recognize characteristics of people with mental health or addiction problems who may be misperceived as being willfully violent when they actually are in a health crisis.

In terms of accountability, an officer’s use of force resulting in death or injury must be independently investigated by an unrelated law enforcement agency or a state attorney, and those incidents would be reported to and tracked by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Further, the bill would prohibit arresting a child younger than seven years of age, unless the child was committing a forcible felony.