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Get the latest coverage of the 2024 Florida legislative session in Tallahassee from our coverage partners and WUSF.

Florida bill would ban civilian police oversight statewide. Critics say that's counterproductive

AL DIAZ
/
MIAMI HERALD

Civilian-run police oversight panels in South Florida and across the state could all be at risk under HB 601. Advocates say the prospective ban would betray efforts to foster better relations and trust among police and communities.

More than two dozen cities and counties in Florida could lose their independent, civilian-run police oversight agencies if a bill filed in the Florida Legislature becomes law.

The bill would effectively ban civilian oversight of police departments in Florida, and only allow police to investigate and hold themselves accountable for any potential wrongdoing.

Advocates say the prospective ban on civilian oversight of policing would betray efforts to foster better relations and trust among police and communities.

“Investigations that are done completely in-house, where information only comes and goes from internal elements to the law enforcement agency — there just tends to be less trust in that process,” said Cameron McElhinney, the Executive Director for the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, a national group.

“If something is done externally to law enforcement, that is seen — whether it's real or perceived — as more legitimate,” she added.

Civilian oversight panels often investigate serious allegations of wrongdoing by police officers and then report findings in a public setting. Many boards compile data and then offer policy recommendations to departments.

In Florida, these panels exist everywhere: from North Miami and Fort Lauderdale to Winter Haven, Bradenton, St. Petersburg, Key West, Pensacola, Ft. Meyers, Daytona Beach, Naples, Kissimmee and Orlando.

They often provide mediation between individual police officers and members of the public who feel they have had negative interactions with those officers. In those cases, the panel serves as something of a neutral conduit between police departments and the public.

“Civilian oversight cannot fix all of the problems that exist with law enforcement and the relationships with community. But I can tell you, we can't fix any of them without it,” said McElhinney.

All civilian panels and boards are independent, and their powers and limitations differ by jurisdiction.

“Civilian oversight cannot fix all of the problems that exist with law enforcement and the relationships with community. But I can tell you, we can't fix any of them without it."
Cameron McElhinney, National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement

The bill that would ban these boards and panels statewide is sponsored by Jacksonville Republican Rep. Wyman Duggan. His office did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Duggan told the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville that civilian panels adds uncertainty to what's "already a very stressful profession" and make it difficult to recruit future police officers.

He added that investigations "can drag on and on, which for the officer is very stressful and time-consuming and potentially costly if they have to hire private counsel."

According to the language of HB 601, the point of the bill is to make all investigations of police conduct uniform statewide. To this aim, it would prevent local governments from creating their own civilian-led method of investigating alleged wrongdoing.

Activists have been trying to create a police oversight board in Jacksonville, Duggan’s hometown, since the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020.

WLRN also contacted several police unions for this story, both at the local and statewide levels. They either didn't respond or wouldn't comment on the bill. Law enforcement unions are among the only labor groups that hold sway with the Republicans who control the Legislature.

Miami panel created after Elián Gonzalez protests

In the city of Miami, the creation of the Civilian Investigative Panel was passed by 72.8% of voters in 2001, after 13 city officers were federally indicted for planting weapons at scenes in order to cover up questionable police shootings of Black men.

The creation of Miami’s civilian panel was also strongly supported by the Cuban-American community, after groups alleged they were mistreated by police as they protested the Clinton Administration’s decision to send Elián Gonzalez back to his father on the island in 2000.

Alan Diaz, Associated Press

Images of federal agents pointing a gun at the boy drove masses of Cuban-Americans onto the streets. City of Miami police tear gassed, arrested and roughed up the protesters. In the aftermath, the Cuban-American community clamored for police accountability.

“This is an issue that transcends all communities,'' Eladio Jose Armesto, president of the Democratic League of Dade County, told the Miami Herald at the time. “It is not fair or just to place officers in the difficult position of having to investigate and to reprimand their fellow officers.''

In the early 2010s the Miami panel investigated a series of police shootings that led to the federal government monitoring the city police department. City police shot 33 people between 2008 and 2011; federal oversight was ended in 2021.

Investigative reports and case evidence made public by the panel has driven media coverage of specific incidents and resulted in disciplinary actions towards officers.

Getting rid of this level of civilian oversight and the role it plays would be devastating for trust in law enforcement, said Rodney Jacobs, the executive director of the Miami Civilian Investigative Panel.

“It’s not only short-sighted, but it's not looking to the future of how we're going to innovate police departments,” he said.

“I think once police departments figure out that, 'Hey, this is a really great collaboration with civilian oversight to do our work,' they accept it with open arms."
Rodney Jacobs, executive director of the Miami Civilian Investigative Panel


Some police oversight cases in the city can drag on for years, frustrating residents, as WLRN has previously reported.

A recent Washington Post analysis found nearly 60% of cases in Miami between 2009 and 2020 were closed without any findings at all, in large part since the cases can take so long to be heard and community members stop participating in the process.

But when cases are heard, the panel remains the only publicly-facing method of deliberation and oversight, where grievances and resulting findings are aired out in full public view.

The longest continually-active civilian oversight board in Florida was started in 1991 in St. Petersburg. Before that, Dade County (later Miami-Dade) started its own civilian oversight panel after serious civil unrest in 1980, when four Miami police officers were cleared of criminal charges related to the death of motorist Arthur McDuffie. That panel was active until it was defunded in 2009 during the financial crisis; a new version of that old panel began hearing cases again just this year.

READ MORE: New civilian panel starts investigating reports of Miami-Dade police misconduct once again

Jacobs acknowledged there are always some tensions with police unions about the heightened level of oversight, but the Miami panel does not have the ability to discipline officers on its own.

“I think once police departments figure out that, 'Hey, this is a really great collaboration with civilian oversight to do our work,' they accept it with open arms,” said Jacobs.

Police chiefs have regularly appeared before the Miami panel over the years.

Since 2016, the panel has continually sounded the alarm that many officers were violating department rules by not using body-worn cameras that were purchased to increase transparency to community interactions.

Yet the bulk of cases heard by the panel are allegations of simple discourtesy.

“I can't tell you the amount of times when people come into our office and say, ‘Hey, this officer gave me a speeding ticket. I deserved it, but he didn't have to be a jerk about it.’ And you know, we mediate cases like that,” said Jacobs.

“I can name dozens of individuals who may have not had the outcome that they're looking for, but the fact that they engage with a process, that seems fair, that was fair, that gave them a voice to be heard, is what a lot of people I think are looking for.”

History and contested impact

The concept of expanding civilian oversight of police was a pillar of the 21st Century Policing report issued by the Obama Administration in 2015, following widespread civil unrest over the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The creation of the boards has proliferated since then.

A 2014 Black Lives Matter protest in Miami included a so-called 'die in' in the middle of the street. A die-in is when people lay on the ground to protest police violence.
A 2014 Black Lives Matter protest in Miami included a so-called 'die in' in the middle of the street. A die-in is when people lay on the ground to protest police violence.

Yet even before that incident, the federal government regularly required cities to adopt some form of civilian oversight of police when a police department comes under federal supervision over potential civil rights violations. It remains unclear what impact a Florida ban would have on cities that are required by the federal government to create these boards.

A Department of Justice report in 2018 found little evidence to show the overall effectiveness of civilian oversight boards.

A 2019 research paper funded by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement surveyed 11 police departments in Florida on the impact of civilian oversight.

It found that although officers are initially wary of increased oversight, over time, “the rank and file are accepting of the boards and their recommendations.” The paper found that civilian oversight of policing is “a step in the right direction in this day and age of police mistrust.”

A report issued last year by the LeRoy Collins Institute at Florida State University, concluded that "more cities in Florida should adopt [Civilian Oversight Agencies]" because research shows Black arrest rates go down sharply in cities with civilian panels, "presenting a net positive for both officers and civilians."

Bans enacted in other states

Only two other states have banned civilian oversight of the police: Arizona and Tennessee, said McElhinney, of the national association.

The creation of the Community Oversight Board in Nashville was passed by nearly 60% of voters in 2020, after two unarmed Black men were shot and killed by police. Officials found those shootings justified.

Makayla McCree was the head of the Nashville board until it was dissolved by law in late October. The dissolution of the board has left a major gap in the community, she said.

“There’s an obligation to create a pathway to rebuild trust. And I don’t see very many avenues to do that, other than these bodies.”
Makayla McCree, head of the now-dissolved Community Oversight Board in Nashville

“The Community Oversight Board in Nashville was birthed out of the tears of black mothers who had lost their sons at the hands of the police,” said McCree. “So when there is the erasure of the board, or the entity designed to kind of be that bridge between community and help them, there's also the erasure of that relationship with communities who are hurting and who have been harmed by law enforcement.”

Doing away with a crucial board that police can use to rebuild trust with the communities they serve is in nobody’s interest, said McCree.

In the wake of Floyd's murder in Minneapolis in 2020, police departments in big cities and rural areas have seen a severe drop in being able to solve crimes, according to data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Gallup polling shows community trust of police has dropped by 10 points since 2019, across the board: in rural, urban, Republican and Democratic-leaning areas.

“There’s an obligation to create a pathway to rebuild trust,” said McCree. “And I don’t see very many avenues to do that, other than these bodies.”

Copyright 2023 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Daniel Rivero is a reporter and producer for WLRN, covering Latino and criminal justice issues. Before joining the team, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion.