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DeSantis Seeks Increased Penalties For Violent Protesters And Defunding Police Departments

Screenshot of man at podium with other men, law enforcement officials, and flags behind him.
Gov. Ron DeSantis announces sweeping measures to increase penalties for those found guilty of inciting violence at peaceful protests.

DeSantis called for local governments that attempt to defund law enforcement to be denied state money while protecting law enforcement officers from "professional agitators."

Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday announced new legislation aimed at keeping state money from any local municipality that attempts to defund law enforcement services while creating new criminal offenses for those who become violent during protests.

During a news conference in Winter Haven, DeSantis said that the measures are an attempt to protect law enforcement officers from the “professional agitators” who have disrupted peaceful protests on racial injustice and are ”bent on sowing disorder and causing mayhem in our cities.”

He was accompanied by more than a dozen law enforcement officials – including Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd – and legislative leaders, none of whom were wearing protective facemasks while standing shoulder-to-shoulder.

“I will not allow this kind of violence to occur here in Florida,” DeSantis said. “The legislation announced today will not only combat rioting and looting, but also protect the men and women in law enforcement that wake up every day to keep us safe. I look forward to working with the Florida Legislature next session to sign this proposal into law.”

The 2021 legislative session is scheduled to begin in March.

Earlier this month, Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warrenannounced 264 charges against 120 individuals, largely stemming from widespread unrest near Busch Gardens and the University of South Florida on May 30.

The proposal, named the "Combatting Violence, Disorder and Looting and Law Enforcement Protection Act," includes sweeping penalties against individuals found guilty of inciting riots and looting, and discourages them from gathering in small crowds with the intent to damage property or injure others.

Such cases could result in a third-degree felony charge, as would those who block roadways to obstruct traffic. Drivers would not be liable “for injury or death caused if fleeing for safety from a mob.”

It also calls for a second-degree felony charge for anyone found guilty of destroying or toppling monuments or other public property, and further penalizes those from out-of-state who participate in violent protests.

Those found guilty of striking a law enforcement officer – including by throwing an object – would face a mandatory six-month jail sentence, and it calls for increased penalties for anyone found guilty of throwing an object that hits an officer or civilian.

DeSantis called his plan a “very robust package” that is stronger than proposals in other parts of the country.

“I think what it’s saying is, we’re not going to let Florida go down the road that some of these other places have gone. If you can do this and get away with it, then you’re going to have more people do it. If you do it and you know that there’s going to be a ton of bricks rain down on you, then I think that people will think twice about engaging in this type of conduct,” he said.

“Protesting is a basic constitutional right of free speech, which I wholeheartedly support,” added Judd. “Violence, rioting, looting, and vandalism are illegal acts – not rights. Nothing else matters if you and your children aren’t safe.

“Criminals who destroy and tear down our communities and victimize others must be held accountable, through quick action and swift punishment.”

DeSantis' plan would also impose stronger sentences on protestors who travel to Florida from other states, as well as
It also will allow victims of crimes associated with such violent assemblies to sue local governments if they're viewed as “grossly negligent in protecting“ people or property.

It also makes it a first degree misdemeanor for someone taking part in a violent or disorderly assembly to harass someone out in public, like at a restaurant; and also attaches Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act liability to anyone who organizes or funds such an assembly.

The announcement comes after months of protests across the country - some that have turned violent, including one in Tampa in May - in response to inequities in the way some law enforcement treat Black people.

Micah Kubic, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, denounced DeSantis’ efforts as a way to “silence, criminalize, and penalize Floridians who want to see justice for Black lives lost to racialized violence and brutality at the hands of law enforcement.”

“Instead of acknowledging and addressing police brutality and violence in our state, Gov. DeSantis wants to use his power to throw more people into the criminal legal system by enacting overly harsh criminal penalties for protesters who are exercising their constitutional right to take to the streets and demand justice,” Kubic said in a statement.

“Instead of prioritizing issues impacting people’s lives, Governor Ron DeSantis and the Republican Party of Florida are fear-mongering at the expense of Floridians, and making a mockery of our legislative process to pull a political stunt for Donald Trump ahead of the 2020 election," Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the state's top Democrat, said in a prepared statement.

DeSantis is “trying to block people from using their 1st Amendment right to protest is a slap in the face to everyone fighting against injustice, especially Black people. It's wrong and it’s unconstitutional,” state Rep. Shevrin Jones, a West Park Democrat who is running for the state Senate, tweeted Monday afternoon.

“This bill is a radical political stunt by Governor Ron DeSantis. The fact that he and the Republican legislators can come up with a plan to criminalize peaceful protests while ignoring our broken unemployment system and COVID-19, shows just how little they actually care about Floridians," Florida Democratic Party Chair Terrie Rizzo said in a statement released Monday afternoon.

“Real leaders step up in moments of crisis, but today’s actions again prove that Governor DeSantis is weak," Rizzo added. "He can’t meet this moment, actually get the virus under control and unite Floridians— so instead, he is resorting to cheap, political stunts meant to appease Donald Trump in an election year and stifle the movement for racial equality and justice.”

The penalties are not limited to anyone facing felony charges. They also include terminating state benefits for anyone participating in a disorderly assembly, and make them ineligible for employment by state or local government.

“Violence and destruction are the tools of terrorists, not reformers,” said House Speaker-Designate Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor. “We live in a country founded on the power of words, and no group of self-appointed activists and anarchists can be allowed to deprive others of their life, liberty or property."

DeSantis also is calling on local governments to not go forward with slashing budgets to defund police departments, denying state grants to those that do so. DeSantis said governments that do so for financial reasons would be exempt from such penalties.

Kubic said this effort would “punish local communities for addressing how best to use taxpayer dollars in their communities by divesting from overly funded police departments and investing resources back into other much-needed community resources and services.“

“Just because the governor refuses to address racial injustice and police brutality, does not mean local governments must follow suit,“ Kubic said. “Enacting such an oppressive mandate would be a gross overreach.“

The office of St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, a Democrat who has butted heads with DeSantis over each other's approach to the COVID-19 pandemic, responded to the defunding aspect of the proposal.

“This wouldn't appear to impact St. Pete as our police budget has increased. The mayor isn't concerned with Trumpian threats and gimmicks,“ communications director Benjamin Kirby said in an email to WUSF.

Kriseman and Chief of Police Anthony Holloway announced in July that St. Petersburg would create a new program, the Community Assistant Liaison (CAL), which includes 18 to 20 social and mental health workers who will respond to non-criminal calls in place of police officers.

The program, which is expected to start in October, will initially be funded by a more than $3 million federal grant that originally was expected to hire 25 new officers.

Additional information from the News Service of Florida.

I wasn't always a morning person. After spending years as a nighttime sports copy editor and page designer, I made the move to digital editing in 2000. Turns out, it was one of the best moves I've ever made.
Mark Schreiner is the assistant news director and intern coordinator for WUSF News.
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