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House bill brings uncertainty to future of Gainesville Police Advisory Council

A police car drives by the Gainesville Police Department building. (Aileyahu Shanes/WUFT News)
A police car drives by the Gainesville Police Department building. (Aileyahu Shanes/WUFT News)

A bill rolling through the Florida Legislature, HB 601, would place further restrictions on civilian oversight over police departments – raising fears about the future of the Gainesville Police Advisory Council.

The Gainesville board's power will not be entirely diminished by the proposal. It would limit making recommendations for individual cases and officers. It would not affect the Gainesville board’s practice of making recommendations only on department policy, shielding individual officers from public criticism.

But Casey Willits, Gainesville District 3 city commissioner, fears the proposal may cause problems down the road.

“It can preempt expanding the role [of the board] if we want to,” Willits said.

The Gainesville city commissioners listen to a presentation on the state of HB 601 in the state legislature. (Aileyahu Shanes/WUFT News)
The Gainesville city commissioners listen to a presentation on the state of HB 601 in the state legislature. (Aileyahu Shanes/WUFT News)

Willits wrote a non-binding agreement, to be voted on by the city commission at its meeting on Feb. 1, which opposes the bill. It was shut down in a 5-2 vote. Although the Florida League of Cities, a united coalition of Florida cities and municipalities, opposes the bill, not all Florida cities are creating similar opposition. Some commissioners did not want Gainesville to stand alone on this issue.

“I think we’d just be better served sticking with a coalition of the Florida League of Cities,” said Ed Book, Gainesville District 2 city commissioner who voted “no” on the resolution.

Willits said he is not giving up in fighting the proposal.

“I’ll look to some other communities,” he said, “to see what they’re doing, if they have interest in similar efforts to oppose House Bill 601.”

The bill was written by Rep. Wyman Duggan, R-Jacksonville. He told the Florida Times-Union that police advisory boards add more stress to police officers, saying it brings more uncertainty to the job. He also said it hurts recruitment.

The bill was approved by the House on Feb. 22 in an 87-29 vote. It is now under consideration in the Senate.

Fareed Johnson, 31, joined the Gainesville Police Advisory Council in 2017. He said he is proud of its success, since it can make an impact with a diverse range of voices and backgrounds.

“We’re able to come to the table and have a conversation,” Johnson said. “We’re able to do it civilly as a group and a team effort.”

The council made changes within the Gainesville Police Department through their recommendations. They helped retire Ranger the K9, the dog that mauled Terrell Bradley at a traffic stop in 2022. They also helped put into policy that the department could not use mugshots or driver's license photos of homicide victims.

“My biggest concern about this bill is the narrative,” Johnson said.

He said the narrative is the need for a barrier between community input and police departments.

In his resolution, Willits highlighted the successes of civilian oversight agencies. According to a study by the Leroy Collins Institute, an organization at Florida State University that studies and promotes solutions to issues facing Floridians, Black arrests are reduced in cities with a civilian oversight agency compared to cities that do not have one.

It was about 15 years ago when senior pastor Karl Anderson, 50, was pulled over by the police in Pontotoc, Mississippi.

“I just knew that I was going to die that night,” he said.

The officers pulled Anderson out of his car, slammed him to the door and called him “a n-----” and told him “This ain't Florida, boy.” They had him kneel on the street with his legs crossed as they thoroughly inspected his car, until one of the cops' wives passed by.

“He said, ‘Oh my God, that’s my wife,” Anderson said. “And his whole disposition changed.”

Now in his hometown of Gainesville, Anderson said he understands the importance of civilian oversight over the local police force.

“I do feel police advisory boards have their place in general,” he said, “not just because those instances [of police misconduct] are potentials, but also [for] the police department to hear what the citizens are saying.”

Johnson calls HB 601 a “smokescreen.”

“My personal opinion,” he said, “is that [for] the authors of the bill, this is a form of them being able to tell their base and their constituents, ‘Hey, this is how I’m standing up for law enforcement.’”

Despite his issues with the bill, Johnson is not worried about the impact this will have on the board.

“We may be placed under the police department itself,” he said. “But that’s not an issue. That’s just a matter of policy.”

Although Anderson does have concerns about the proposal and the future of civilian oversight of police in Gainesville, he has confidence in the leadership of the Gainesville Police Department.

“I think we happen to be in an area where we got good leadership,” he said, “and the leadership is minority themselves. They empathize with the disparities and unfair instances of being Black themselves.”

For Anderson, having civilian oversight over the local police force is not just about accountability for those who are mistreated by law enforcement. He believes these agencies are important for a wide range of issues like discussing staffing shortages and community engagement.

“I think that stigma is what gives the advisory board a bad name,” Anderson said. “They’re not watchdogs. That’s not the initial intent of it.”

Aileyahu is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing