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A bill curtailing civilian oversight of police has passed the Florida House

Who will police the police? That’s the question at the heart of a debate over citizen police review boards
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Who will police the police? That’s the question at the heart of a debate over citizen police review boards

Who will police the police? That's the question at the heart of a debate over citizen police review boards, which the Florida Legislature is poised to curtail.

The Florida House has passed a bill that would limit the power of civilian oversight of law enforcement or correctional officers. Few of the current boards have subpoena power. Most can make recommendations or monitor internal investigations.

There are 21 Florida cities with active civilian oversight boards appointed by the mayor or city government. But under this pre-emption measure, House Bill 601, the state would decide who handles investigations and misconduct cases. At the center of the argument is how much power these boards have.

“It is a very real thing that our communities have historically had mistrust," says Democratic Representative Kevin Chambliss of Homestead. "And these boards create a transparency that is needed now, I think, more than ever.”

Chambliss says when people can participate and ask questions, it builds trust.

“We have to make sure the community knows they CAN trust the police," he says. "But if we do not have the ability to ask questions about things that happen, then the community’s trust…it lessens.”

“I understand the sentiment that they help build community trust," responds Republican Representative Wyman Duggan of Jacksonville, the bill’s sponsor. "They will be able to continue talking about policies, procedure, training, culture, systemic abuses, patterns and practices of behavior. All they will not be able to do is receive, process and investigate instances of misconduct.”

Republican Representative Danny Alvarez of Hillsborough County deplores the idea that a civilian oversight board could have subpoena power.

“No one here would ever -- and I mean EVER -- argue that civilians don’t have the right to be involved in the policing of their community. What this bill simply says is: Have your civilian review boards, get them involved with their community, but they do not have the power to conduct subpoena investigations -- which, unfortunately, are being done as we speak and requested every day.”

But instances of police misconduct, say bill opponents, is where the issue of transparency is most crucial. Supporters of HB 601 say there are already plenty of layers of transparency, starting with police agencies’ internal administrations and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. But Democratic Representative Michele Rayner of St. Petersburg rejects the idea there are two sides in this debate.

“There is…will be a distinction that says that if we want civilian review boards that we don’t support law enforcement. I want to be very clear: that is not the case," she says. "What we support is good law enforcement. What we support is transparent law enforcement. What we support is law enforcement who understand they are to protect and serve all of the community, not just some of the community.”

HB 601 passed the House 87-29. It’s now waiting to be heard in Senate Rules.

Follow @MargieMenzel

Margie Menzel covers local and state government for WFSU News. She has also worked at the News Service of Florida and Gannett News Service. She earned her B.A. in history at Vanderbilt University and her M.S. in journalism at Florida A&M University.