By John Kennedy, Capital Bureau, USA TODAY NETWORK-FLORIDA, July 9, 2021
TALLAHASSEE – A year after George Floyd’s death exposed deep divisions over race and policing, a new Florida law seeks to spark what supporters say is a needed cultural change across many law enforcement agencies.
The measure orders that every police department have use-of-force policies, bans chokeholds and makes it tougher for officers with troubled histories to leave one job under a cloud and resurface at other agencies.
Backed by Florida’s ruling Republicans, who more frequently choose tough-on-crime tactics over reform, the overhaul may actually get buy-in from rank-and-file police — critical to make any revisions work, experts say.
But change won’t be easy.
“Policy is important,” said David Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor who teaches on police behavior, law enforcement and race. “But changing the culture in agencies takes time. Culture will eat policy for breakfast, every time.”
The package of law enforcement reforms swept unanimously through the Florida House and Senate in April, only two weeks after emerging as a hard-fought compromise between Republican leaders and Black lawmakers, almost all Democrats, who had pushed for even more sweeping law enforcement policy shifts.
“It’s a new day,” said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, a former Florida Sheriffs Association president. “Some departments are already doing some of the things in this law. But it’s an even newer day for others.”
The bill’s approval also marked an out-of-the-box moment for DeSantis and the GOP-led Legislature.
DeSantis already had antagonized Black lawmakers with his demand for legislation that toughened penalties and created new crimes stemming from violent protests — moves he called for following last summer’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations.
In signing the anti-protest law, DeSantis was flanked by uniformed law enforcement officers in an apparent show of force. That law now is being challenged in federal court as unconstitutional by several civil rights organizations, including the NAACP.
By contrast, DeSantis quietly signed the new policing law, without comment. Still, a Republican sponsor, Rep. Cord Byrd of Neptune Beach, said the new requirements were the result of “months of conversations with and between lawmakers, law enforcement and citizens to promote best law enforcement practices.”
GOP support was key
Republican support, though, is important, said Seth Stoughton, a University of South Carolina law professor who testified at the Chauvin trial in Minneapolis, where he condemned the former officer’s handling of Floyd.
“The Florida law is much more likely to get buy-in because the governor signing it into law is not on the opposite side of the policing issue,” said Stoughton, a former Tallahassee police officer.
Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, a member of the Legislative Black Caucus and a sponsor of the new law, said Floridians are demanding change. The caucus proposed 16 bills to address a host of policing issues but ultimately embraced the bipartisan-backed approach.
“George Floyd’s death didn’t happen here, but it was felt here, deeply and around the world,” Driskell said.
“The frame of this law sets how we can support just and fair policing,” she added. “The sheriffs and police chiefs want good officers and good relationships with their communities. That’s what we’re hoping this law advances.”
The Florida law attempts to close glaring gaps within many police agencies — mandating that each develop a use-of-force policy and specific guidelines for how to de-escalate situations without resorting to force.
Chokeholds, including neck restraints like that which killed Floyd, are now prohibited, unless the officer “perceives an immediate threat of serious bodily injury or death.”
And in an attempt to blunt what critics see as cursory, in-house investigations, the law mandates an independent review of any use of force that leads to death or the intentional discharge of an officer’s firearm causing injuries or death.
Those findings would be reported to state attorneys for possible further legal action.
Duty to intervene
Borrowing from the tragic details of the Floyd case, Florida’s law now demands that officers are taught they have a duty to intervene if excessive force is being used by a colleague.
Policies are to be set by each agency to train police for signs of mental illness and drug use, and how to respond appropriately in such situations.
New officers are to undergo training in all these areas, with the state’s Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission charged by 2023 to have a mandatory training course for all recruits.
With this new blueprint for improving police agencies, analysts said it will be the responsibility of law enforcement leaders to embrace the changes and commit to improving the work done by those under their command.
“Good policy, good training and good supervision is what’s needed,” Harris said. “And you really should act to get rid of the people who don’t belong there.”
Harris pointed out that Chauvin, while with the Minneapolis Police, was a field training officer who helped evaluate officers coming out of the academy.
“That wasn’t a training issue,” Harris said. “That was a human being issue. Training by itself isn’t enough to get the kind of officers you want.”
With its focus on putting use-of-force polices on the books statewide and collecting data on their deployment, Florida’s law may contribute to breaking the trend of what’s dubbed the “wandering officer,” where cops with bad records start fresh in a new department.
An investigation by the USA TODAY Network-Florida last year reported that thousands of tarnished officers have been forced out from Florida police agencies for misconduct in the past 30 years, and at least 505 of these law enforcement and corrections officers given a second chance later committed an offense that led to their decertification.
The vast majority of these officers committed some form of a crime, ranging from drug offenses to sexual assault to murder, leaving a trail of victims and at least two dozen lawsuits, the investigation found.
Criminal behavior by officers: Florida gave thousands of tarnished officers a second chance. Hundreds blew it again.
One Florida agency’s hiring record: Dozens of deputies lied, cheated and stole. This Florida sheriff hired them anyway.
Legislation that would have tightened the state’s decertification process, which was examined in the investigation, was among the bills advanced by the Legislative Black Caucus. But it fell out of discussions as lawmakers worked to finalize what is now Florida law.
Under the new law, if officers are fired, resign or retire, law enforcement agencies would be required to retain information about the officers’ job performance for a minimum of five years.
And when officers apply for new jobs, they would be forced to disclose any investigations into “criminal, civil or administrative wrongdoing” and whether the applicant was leaving their earlier post while under investigation.
Data on use-of-force incidents also would be reported quarterly to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The state provision adds teeth to data the FBI is attempting to collect voluntarily from U.S. law enforcement agencies.
Florida Today found last month that only 90 of the state’s 387 law enforcement agencies — about 1 in 4 — have submitted data to the FBI. That’s well behind the 50% of police agencies nationwide that have reported.
“I don’t care if you’re a 10- or a 20,000-person department, you should be fully informed about the background of the person you’re hiring and their reasons for leaving another agency,” said Gualtieri, the Pinellas sheriff.
He said that may seem obvious to most administrators. But with police agencies dealing with a years-long shortage of qualified officers — and the willingness of some department leaders to downplay possible warning signs — that hasn’t always happened.
“Now, no agency can say we didn’t know about someone’s history,” Gualtieri said. “It’s got to be disclosed. This law will make sure everything is on the table.”
Still, no one is expecting rapid change across Florida police agencies.
The new law gives law enforcement agencies until next July to begin recording their own use-of-force incidence data, before submitting it to FDLE where a robust data set is expected to eventually emerge.
The Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission has two years before it updates the basic training program for incoming officers to include new use-of-force, de-escalation, mental health and other procedures.
Stoughton, the South Carolina law professor, said it will be years before the law takes root.
“Change is slow in police departments,” said Stoughton, a former Tallahassee police officer. “Each generation of officers learns its trade at the hands of more experienced officers.
“You can tell the new class, ‘Here’s what you should do,’ but if the senior officers are not enforcing that, it takes time or gets lost,” he said. “Training has to be reinforced by policy and supervision. If supervisors and an officer’s peers don’t expect them to do something, it won’t get done.”
John Kennedy is a reporter in the USA TODAY Network’s Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at [email protected], or on Twitter at @JKennedyReport