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Florida Advances Legislation That Would Quash Police Oversight Boards

Despite having no legal power in the state, these oversight committees’ impacts have already been felt.

Law enforcement officers stand outside the Wilkie D. Ferguson Jr. U.S. Courthouse in Miami, Florida, on June 13, 2023.

A December bill introduced by state Rep. Wyman Duggan could soon eliminate police oversight committees in Florida. The House version, HB 601, titled “Complaints Against Law Enforcement and Correctional Officers,” has since advanced through multiple panels and is now with the Judiciary Committee. The House version outlaws investigations and public review of police officers, or public discussions of those investigations by anyone other than internal affairs for that law enforcement agency.

The Senate version, SB 576, cleared its first hearing in the Criminal Justice Committee and is now in Community Affairs. SB 576 would make police oversight illegal in Florida, but the proposed bill does not clearly define what police oversight is. If the bill passes, advocates and committee board members say the state’s marginalized and highly policed communities will lose their right to demand accountability.

Police oversight committees are civilian boards created to review allegations of police misconduct. The first oversight boards were created in the 1970s, but there was a surge of new committees after the 2020 police killing of George Floyd.

“Civilian review boards pose no threat to law-abiding officers,” said NR Hines, a policy strategist for the ACLU of Florida. “Often they have very restricted powers, and in many cases, the ACLU in general advocates for civilian review boards to be stronger, because, in many cases, they are very weak. It’s odd that they found this to be something that requires the legislature reaching their hand into the issue.”

Civilian oversight boards act as third-party oversight agencies for police departments. They’re typically government agencies made up of individuals with no ties to the police department. They investigate misconduct, review civilian complaints, review internal department investigations, and make recommendations on changes. But in Florida, these boards have no legal power, due in part to the 2017 state Supreme Court ruling D’Agastino v. City of Miami, which ruled that subpoena power is unconstitutional because the police officer’s Bill of Rights is preemptive. The boards can’t force those in law enforcement to testify in court or subpoena any police agencies.

“In these review boards, there is more transparency into police activity, which is important to build trust between the community and the police department,” Hines said.

These committees’ impacts have already been felt. A 2022 study by the Leroy Collins Institute at Florida State University found that 21 cities in Florida have civilian oversight boards for their police departments including Miami, Tampa, Orlando, Tallahassee, Gainesville, and West Palm Beach. The report said the oversight boards show a 15% decrease in Black arrest rates and help bridge the gap between police and civilians. The paper concludes that more cities in the state should adopt similar committees.

In Miami-Dade County, Ursula Price is the executive director of the Independent Civilian Panel. Price relocated to South Florida in 2023 to accept the inaugural role after serving in the city of New Orleans Independent Police Monitor’s Office for nearly a decade, where she organized and advocated for its creation.

Price’s office has publicly reported on police body camera patterns, civilian complaints being sent back to the district without the full elements of an investigation, and internal affairs not responding to many complaints.

“We are now looking at that category of complaints to determine what exactly should be a better system of delineating how things go to the district versus internal affairs,” Price said. “This is important because it impacts the quality. It impacts the outcome in that individual situation, but also only internal affairs is charged with seeing the patterns and misconduct complaints and coming up with system changes in training and policy that can improve the whole police department.”

According to Price, before civilian oversight, there weren’t really any mechanisms in which civilians could dig into the inner workings of how the police departments held themselves accountable.

“We relied mostly on journalism to do that for us, but the police certainly didn’t openly share that information,” said Price.

The decision to potentially ban police oversight committees comes at a time when, according to Hines, “society’s perception of law enforcement varies widely, which is not surprising, due to the lived experiences of marginalized groups.”

“You would hope that would be a priority for the legislators — unfortunately, the only solution that they see is to, once again, preempt an idea and remove power to use our tax dollars on bad policies to restrict our freedoms, undermine our sense of democracy, and [undermine] our sense of having any accountability or any sort of say into the policing that happens in our community,” Hines said.

The ACLU of Florida says they support civilian review boards to acquire independent attorneys and, secondly, to have subpoena power similar to courts. If locals are motivated to protect their police oversight committees, they should reach out to local representatives and senators to voice their concerns.

“[I]mpacts can only happen when people know, and we have an actual mechanism for them to exercise influence,” Price said. “Oversight is that mechanism. Frankly, I don’t know how we have done policing all this time without it. Almost every other profession has some independent mechanism of accountability … the ultimate outcome of not having these mechanisms in place is that you are left to resolve any concerns you have about policing with the police directly, and I think we know how that goes already. Some people will have access and be taken seriously; a larger number of people will not.”

One of Price’s largest battles in her decades-long career has involved the lack of access to information. According to Price, discretionary stops are a piece of data that a police department might be required to gather by the Department of Justice if they’ve been found to have a pattern of racial discrimination. Ideally, officers would keep track of when they make a discretionary arrest, when they choose to actually arrest someone who could get a ticket, and collect data about the race, location, and nature of the offense.

“There’s very little that I found this far in Florida law that requires police departments to gather and report race-based data that would be useful for communities trying to address things in their lived experience that are not documented,” Price said.

Price says local jurisdictions can require their criminal legal system to assess how their department is performing and strengthen oversight. While the legislative session is still ongoing and the outcome remains unknown, Price says she will continue to work with the committee to hold police accountable.

“While we’re still allowed to do that work, those in our community are talking about and talking with legal organizations about what we might have to do to litigate and clarify the law that comes out of this,” Price said. “We’re preparing ourselves for new versions of our ordinances that allow us to still do something useful for our community, without conflict and with state law. In the meantime, though, it is not a done deal. I highly urge people to contact their senators and representatives and let them know how they feel about the destruction of this particular type of democracy in Florida.”

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