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Police oversight ban plan is just another Tallahassee power play on the people

A white man with a microphone during a hearing.
Florida State Rep. Spencer Roach. Credit: Florida House website.

Florida’s politicians love the cops and the cops love them back. The tokens of their affection are endorsements, campaign contributions and votes. 

Sometimes, though, the politicians love them too much. 

Bills moving through the Legislature would abolish the civilian police oversight boards in 21 Florida cities and prohibit any new ones. 

That’s on top of the extraordinary protection the Legislature has already given its preferred public employees. To wit: 

–The Florida PBA’s money has heavily favored Republicans over the past quarter-century, according to a study by Some $4 million went to Republicans, only just short of $2.4 million to Democrats.

–Police, correctional officers and firefighters were exempted from the so-called “paycheck protection” union-busting law that the Legislature passed last year to help Gov. Ron DeSantis run for president. That ax fell last month on more than 30 other bargaining units for lack of sufficient member support. The law is a blatant tactic to weaken the teachers’ unions and others that, unlike the police and firefighters, tend to favor Democrats. 

–Florida police have long had a “Bill of Rights” that other public employees can only envy. Among other things, it provides that they can’t be questioned about complaints against them without first being shown every iota of evidence. 

They’d howl, of course, if the same rules applied to how they question criminal suspects. 

According to a 1997 attorney general’s opinion, the law also prohibits citizen review boards, where they exist, from getting involved until the agencies complete their internal investigations. 

Citizen oversight would be erased altogether by the pending legislation. 

The Senate’s committee substitute, SB 576, bars cities and counties from keeping or creating civilian oversight agencies. It would allow sheriffs and police chiefs to appoint their own citizen oversight boards, for whatever that’s worth, which is essentially nothing. 

It leaves the foxes in total control of the henhouses. It provides no criteria for appointments or for what the boards could actually do, which would be no more than the sheriffs and police chiefs would want them to do. 

Civilian oversight is necessary, among other things, to watch over the police chiefs themselves. That’s a safety valve for the instinct to cover up what would embarrass them or invite lawsuits. 

Civilian oversight is vital because the police have the most powerful and sensitive roles in public service. They hold your lives and liberty in their hands. 

Most take that burden to heart, but there will always be some who abuse their trust. Trouble is, even good officers often succumb to the unwritten codes of silence that work to keep the bad apples inside the barrel. 

Coverup is the prevailing institutional response. It seems to be the raison d’etre of some of the unions. 

At Tallahassee, for example, the Police Benevolent Association won a lawsuit to keep the city from identifying officers who had shot and killed two citizens. The pretext was that the officers were victims who had shot in self-defense, entitled to the protection of the Marsy’s Law victims’ rights amendments The Supreme Court overturned that, ruling Marsy’s law doesn’t shield anyone’s name, but the identities of the two officers are still not public and there is pending legislation to nullify the court’s decision. 

As to the citizen review boards, House Bill 601 simply abolishes all of them, prohibits new ones, and says nothing about allowing sheriffs and police chiefs to appoint their own. 

Two of its three sponsors are Republicans from Jacksonville—Reps. Wyman Duggan and Dean Black—where citizens are circulating petitions to establish a citizen review board. The third sponsor, Rep. Spencer Roach, R-North Fort Myers, would be abolishing the review board in Fort Myers, which he does not represent but abuts his district. 

A 2021 study released by the LeRoy Collins Institute at Florida State University listed 21 cities with active boards. Miami established the oldest in 2012, followed by Tampa, Orlando, St. Petersburg, Tallahassee, Fort Lauderdale, Gainesville, Lakeland, West Palm Beach, Fort Myers, Kissimmee, Delray Beach, Daytona Beach, North Miami, Bradenton, Pensacola, Ocoee, Fort Pierce, Winter Haven, North Miami Beach and Key West. 

Most were created after the Black Lives Matter movement had begun focusing public attention on fatal police shootings. 

The FSU study, written by James E. Wright II, an assistant professor in the Askew School of Public Administration and Policy, found positive benefits just in the existence of those boards and recommended that more cities create them. 

Among other things, he documented a reduction among those cities in the arrests and the arrest rates of Black people, leading to lower post-arrest workloads for officers and fewer opportunities for excessive use of force. 

For citizens to see such results “increases the legitimacy of the police force,” the study said, emphasizing that the oversight agencies “may lead to increased communication between the police and the community.” 

But the police don’t like them. Lisa Henning, a lobbyist for the Florida State Fraternal Order of Police, tipped their hand at a committee hearing on the House bill. 

“You’re reinvestigating an officer that’s already been investigated … and cleared and now you’re pulling them back before a group of people who have no expertise in the job,” she said.

To put that another way, she was saying that lay citizens aren’t competent to judge whether a policy agency is serving them well. Let them just shut up and pay their taxes. 

What’s missing from the process is any evidence that any of the 21 boards has indulged in unjustified criticisms, excessive interference or any other roguish behavior. The legislation is utterly irresponsible. 

It is, of course, part of a much larger assault on local government and home rule. It used to be an article of faith, especially among the Republicans who now control Florida, that local government is the best form of government for being closest to the people. But now, Tallahassee seems to think the best form of local government is whatever doesn’t perturb some powerful lobby, touchy politician or favorite pressure group. 

Tallahassee knows best. Local governments know nothing. 

The Legislature has forbidden local environmental and minimum wage laws and made it more difficult and potentially costly to enact regulatory ordinances or limit development. While refusing again to take up legislation to protect outdoor workers from extreme heat, it’s moving a bill to prohibit Miami-Dade – or any other local government – from protecting them locally. 

Legislation to cripple the Florida Commission on Ethics, by requiring anyone who files a complaint to have personal knowledge of an offense, would effectively shut down local ethics boards as well. 

There’s also an effort – of Jacksonville origin again – to stop the removal of Confederate monuments and require the replacement of those already removed. It seems to have run into trouble since a supporter admitted out loud that it has to do with “white supremacy.” 

The legislators who claim to be shocked by that should have known it all along.

About the author: Martin Dyckman retired in 2006 from the St. Petersburg Times, where he wrote primarily about government and politics for 46 years as a reporter, state capital bureau chief and editorial writer. He lives in Asheville, NC, where he continues to observe Florida politics and writes editorials on assignment from the South Florida Sun Sentinel.