Police-community relations are in the spotlight following the police-brutality death of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, Tenn. In this photo, a demonstrator flashes a peace sign at advancing officers following a protest against Donald Trump in Phoenix in 2017. Credit: David McNew / Getty Images
New limits on use of force by police, new training standards, and greater focus on identifying dangerous police practices are now in effect in Florida, though Black legislative leaders say those efforts don’t go far enough.
House Bill 7051, the package of policing reforms negotiated this spring by members of Florida’s Legislative Black Caucus and Republican leaders, was signed into law late Tuesday by Gov. Ron DeSantis, along with 93 other approved bills. The reforms take effect immediately and would impact not only minorities but other people facing trouble with the law.
State Rep. Fentrice Driskell, a key sponsor of the reforms, said they constitute a first step toward safer relations between police and people of color in Florida and that the bipartisan legislative effort is worthy of celebration.
“I’m very glad to see the governor sign this into law. The entire Legislature should be proud of it,” Driskell, a Hillsborough County Democrat, told the Phoenix in a phone interview.
That said, the new policing law doesn’t ban chokeholds and vascular neck restraints but limits the use of them to encounters when an officer “perceives an immediate threat of serious bodily injury or death to himself, herself, or another person.” That kind of restraint was used of by former Minneapolis policeman Derek Chauvin, now convicted of murder, to kill George Floyd, an unarmed, handcuffed suspect in his custody.
The killing of Floyd in May 2020, recorded on video seen around the world, ignited national and international protests against police brutality and inspired a movement for policing reform.
Members of the Black Caucus, led by Rep. Driskell and Sen. Randolph Bracy, an Orlando Democrat, said when the reforms were approved in the final days of the 2021 legislative session, they were considered a good first step for preventing deadly encounters between police and the policed.
The reforms do not include, for instance, requirements that Florida law enforcement officers use bodycams and dashboard cameras to record their activities, as was sought by Black Caucus members and their allies.
“Police reform is long overdue in this state and this country. … People of color are disproportionately affected and in some horrifying cases have cost someone their life,” House Co-leader Bobby DuBose, a Broward Democrat, said in a press statement on Wednesday. “We will continue having conversations with our communities and law enforcement agencies to propose new legislation at the state and federal levels to ensure there is fair and just policing for all.”
Sen. Bobby Powell, a Palm Beach Democrat and chair of the Florida Legislative Black Caucus, said [This law] acknowledges there is a systemic issue in the hiring, training and accountability of law enforcement and correctional officers. I am hopeful that this is the first step of many towards substantial change.”
On Wednesday, Police Chiefs Association President and Satellite Beach Police Chief Jeff Pearson praised the new law in a statement to the Phoenix:
“In the wake of George Floyd’s murder last year, the Florida Police Chiefs Association established a Subcommittee on Accountability and Social Change that hosted over 23 meetings with community leaders to determine how law enforcement can better serve communities. Their recommendations largely formed the basis for HB 7051.”
Pearson wrote that the new law “approaches reform correctly — factual and balanced, ever mindful of the dedication and sacrifice of law enforcement officers, but equally committed to public safety and accountability.”
Pearson said the subcommittee is working to finalize a detailed report of additional recommendations “that law enforcement and community leaders can use to continue making progress together.”
The new law also:
/Requires an officer who observes another officer engaging or attempting to engage in excessive use of force to intervene;
/Require law enforcement agencies to report quarterly to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement on use-of-force incidents that result in serious bodily injury, death, or the discharge of a firearm at a person;
/Require applicants for law-enforcement, corrections or probation jobs to disclose their history of any pending criminal, civil, or administrative investigation;
/Require a law enforcement or correctional agency to maintain records on why an officer was terminated, resigned or retired;
/Requires the Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission to establish standards for police training in use of force, and requires agencies to develop policies in proportional use of force and de-escalation techniques;
/Establishes that an officer has a duty to render medical assistance to a person in custody who is injured by an officer’s use of force;
/Requires instruction on recognizing symptoms and characteristics of a person with a substance abuse disorder or mental illness and how to appropriately respond;
/Requires independent reviews of officers’ use of force resulting in a death or the intentional firing of a firearm resulting in injury or death;
/Prohibits children younger than seven from being arrested, except if the child commits a forcible felony.
The Police Chiefs Association is holding its annual summer conference in Plantation. Association President Pearson will step down, and his successor, Stephan Dembinsky, director of the Daytona Beach Shores Public Safety Department, will be installed as the new president tonight, said association spokesman William Stander.
Rep. Driskell was invited to speak at the conference but was unable to attend.
The Florida Sheriffs Association has not yet responded to a request for comment.
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