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The Florida Roundup
The Florida Roundup is a live, weekly call-in show with a distinct focus on the issues affecting Floridians. Each Friday at noon, listeners can engage in the conversation with journalists, newsmakers and other Floridians about change, policy and the future of our lives in the sunshine state.Join our host, WLRN’s Tom Hudson, broadcasting from Miami.

The fate of civilian police oversight boards in Florida

Exterior of the Tampa Police Department
Daylina Miller
/
WUSF

A new state law will take a lot of power away from civilian oversight boards in cities like in Miami, Tampa and St. Petersburg. It goes into effect on July 1.

Civilian police oversight boards in Florida are set to lose a lot of power under a new state law.

In April, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill preventing local governments from allowing boards to investigate complaints of misconduct by law enforcement officers.

The measure, introduced by Republican Rep. Wyman Duggan of Jacksonville, also allows police departments and county sheriffs to form their own civilian oversight boards, and requires the police chief or sheriff to appoint at least three to seven members to the panel.

The law goes into effect on July 1. It will affect civilian oversight boards across the state, including in Miami, Tampa and St. Petersburg.

“It's unfortunate that we're kind of placed in this situation due to a few legislators in North Florida that really didn't understand the complete landscape of oversight and the work that we do to build better communities,” Rodney Jacobs, who leads Miami’s Civilian Investigative Panel, said Friday on The Florida Roundup.

While police oversight boards have existed in the Sunshine State for years, the murder of George Floyd in 2020 sparked a statewide and nationwide movement for police accountability.

“… what we're seeing with the passage of this bill and Gov. DeSantis signing it into law is kind of the backlash of a lot of the momentum that started in 2020,” Danny Rivero, investigative reporter for WLRN, said on The Florida Roundup.

The powers civilian oversight boards hold vary by city and county, Rivero said, but they’re usually separate from the police and allow the public to voice their frustrations.

“… traditionally, one of the best benefits of police oversight is this notion of procedural justice, is people that are able to engage within a process, file a complaint, and feel as though and actually get a fair shake of determining what happened in a case,” Jacobs said. He noted how Miami’s board works with the police department and has appointed the city’s police chief.

“But by allowing police chiefs and sheriffs to do this on their own, without really any community input, you have a lot of people really questioning the department and obviously looking at layers of accountability,” Jacobs added. “What are you trying to hide, essentially?”

"I think it's really concerning by just eradicating it, based upon some of what we've seen in Tallahassee, to really say we can do these things on our own now, because history has proven that that hasn't been the case."
Rodney Jacobs, department head of Miami’s Civilian Investigative Panel

History is also at play. Rivero said every city with an oversight board has a story for why it exists in the first place.

“So I'm talking to you right now from the city of Miami, and city voters passed a ballot initiative in 2001 to form a police oversight board,” Rivero explained. “And that was in response to how the police department handled protests involving the removal of Elián González back to Cuba in 2000. I mean, you had a huge coalition of Miami voters, including very conservative Cuban American voters, along with members of the Black community that were, there was a separate scandal going on with the police department. This was by popular choice. This was really a bipartisan move towards creating this kind of panel.

“And then now in one sweep, statewide, all those little intricacies of things that happened in one city, why this board came to play, that's just all out the window. Now it's, all that work that happened years ago kind of doesn't matter anymore.”

Jacobs echoed those sentiments, saying in some cases, it takes a catastrophe for community members to get input from the police.

“So I'm not confident or certain that if civilian oversight were removed completely, that we would get that type of interaction voluntarily by police departments. I think it's really concerning by just eradicating it, based upon some of what we've seen in Tallahassee, to really say we can do these things on our own now, because history has proven that that hasn't been the case.”

As July 1 approaches, Jacobs said Miami’s CIP is trying to figure out the nuances of the new law to continue their work.

“We have the first-ever Community-Police Mediation Program that will continue, we'll still review departmental orders and procedures, we’ll essentially be an audit form of oversight where we still can receive internal affairs investigations and hopefully review those and still work with the police department,” Jacobs explained.

He added that their work depends on what the local government decides to do.

“Although we are a chartered entity, cities can violate the charter as we've seen and say, we want to abolish you anyway. So I still think we have obviously a role and a place, and I think the community obviously still wants us here. But we're going to have to work towards that end together.”

As WUSF’s digital news producer, I strive to serve others by sharing stories on our online platforms.