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Lawmakers have approved limitations on civilian oversight of police misconduct

Officers on patrol
Officers on patrol

The Florida Legislature has voted to curtail civilian oversight of law enforcement or correctional officers. The measure would prevent locally governed boards from conducting investigations or inquiries into police misconduct and it has the backing of law enforcement agencies and the House Speaker.

The measure stops local governments from letting civilian boards oversee or investigate complaints of police misconduct. And it lets police chiefs and county sheriffs form their own boards to review general policies, training and systemic problems.

Supporters of the new policy say regular citizens don’t understand the split-second decision-making that law enforcement officers have to endure.

Opponents like St. Petersburg Democratic Representative Michelle Raynor say the bill will further erode trust between law enforcement and communities of color.

“What we support is good law enforcement,” she said. “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.”

University of Chicago Law Professor Sharon Fairley is a former prosecutor who also worked on an oversight board in Chicago. She says such boards are more effective when decisions and policy are made at the local level.

“Some police departments may need to have oversight that has full, independent investigative responsibilities, right? Because that’s what’s needed in that community,” she said. “Others may not need that form of oversight.”

Under the bill, any investigations into local law enforcement would still be done by local, state and federal policing agencies.

Fairley also doubts that having the state preempt the 21 Florida cities with oversight boards is good governance.

“And certainly, where we have state legislatures that are usurping and inserting their wisdom on top of voter referenda and preempting what voters have said that they want…I certainly don’t think that that’s appropriate or helpful,” Fairley said. “That’s just anti-democratic, in my view.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis hasn’t said whether he plans to approve the bill. But he’s made backing law enforcement a priority with programs that offer relocation bonuses to officers who move to the state from elsewhere. Here he’s speaking to the Florida Sheriffs Association on January 30th. The occasion: his presentation of Bonus Check Number Four Thousand through the Law Enforcement Recruitment Bonus Program.

“So, we’re excited about the success of this program,” DeSantis said. “We’re thankful to have so many people in this profession in the state of Florida. And I don’t think it’s even a question…If somebody could just wave a wand and say, “Where would I want to be in law enforcement of all the 50 states?”, they would overwhelmingly choose the free state of Florida.”

If DeSantis doesn’t veto the bill, it will go into effect July 1, 2024.

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.