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

A bill that would ban citizen police review boards in Florida is poised to pass the Legislature

Senate Bill 576 would abolish citizen police review boards as of July 1, 2024
Senate Bill 576 would abolish citizen police review boards as of July 1, 2024

Many Florida cities created police oversight boards following the death of George Floyd.

A bill moving rapidly in the Florida Legislature would ban civilian oversight of law enforcement or correctional officers. That oversight could still be conducted by county sheriffs or the police chiefs of municipal governments. The measure is slated for a hearing Wednesday, and has its roots in a fight in Tallahassee.

Civilian oversight boards are government agencies that serve as a source of external oversight of police agencies. Some can make recommendations or monitor internal investigations, but not much more.

There are 21 Florida cities with active civilian oversight boards, Tallahassee among them. But in 2022, Tallahassee’s board came under fire after the mug of one of its members caught the attention of the Police Benevolent Association and the Fraternal Order of Police. That controversy also caught the attention of Spring Hill Republican Senator Blaise Ingoglia.

“...They had a mug with an offensive saying on there," Ingoglia said. "That person for that board had a mug for the civilian review board that said ‘F the police.’”

The owner of the mug is Taylor Biro, an advocate for homeless, abused and trafficked youth and a now-former member of Tallahassee’s citizen police review board.

Biro’s mug, which she would bring to meetings of the review board, says “Abolish the police.” But the outrage over it, and everything that’s happened since, embody an ongoing debate over who should hold the people who hold everyone else accountable…accountable.

“Who watches the watchman?" Biro asks. "In what world should it be okay for the police chief to pick who decides if he’s doing a good job or not? We’d all love that, in our roles at work if we could pick who decided…you know, I’d pick my best friend to tell me I’m doing a great job. And I think the police have just too high of a responsibility, and they’re too important with the role that they’re in to not have transparency and some eyes on them.”

After the outcry, Biro was booted from the review board, and other members resigned in protest.

The Tallahassee City Commission, and many other cities, created their police oversight boards during the peak of social justice protests following the death of George Floyd. His death was ruled a homicide after a police officer knelt on his neck.

Ingoglia’s Senate Bill 576 takes the establishment of civilian oversight boards away from local governments and makes it so that only sheriffs or police chiefs can create them. Sheriffs and police chiefs could also appoint up to seven members. Those boards would be able to review policies and procedures but would have no say in other matters, like criminal or misconduct cases.

Supporters of Ingoglia’s bill, like the Smart Justice Alliance’s Barney Bishop, say law enforcement officers face dangers that must be understood and respected -- and the current crop and makeup of the civilian oversight boards don’t do that.

“And if I’m a law enforcement officer, why do I want to come in and talk to a bunch of people that, number one, don’t like me; are inclined to be against me; and don’t care about my constitutional rights -- and I can’t have an attorney there -- they don’t go by court procedural rules," Bishop said. "There’s nothing set up that’s in favor for me to be there. So, these things are kangaroo courts, and they need to go away.”

Democratic Senator Jason Pizzo of Hollywood agrees. He’s a former prosecutor and says the oversight panels were intended to placate individuals, not to make any substantive change in communities. He’s a rare Democrat who voted for Ingoglia’s bill.

“Your local elected officials in Tallahassee should be making the changes and receiving these recommendations -- not a panel that has absolutely no control over this legislature, the county or a city," Pizzo said. "So, the people you elected for public safety, for the viability and vibrancy of your communities and your neighborhoods, are the ones that are responsible. Go make them responsible! Go make them do their job! Not a panel that won’t do anything!”

“You’re probably more likely to stand next to a bad cop because the Florida Police Union has allowed that cop to do wrongdoings and then come back and stand beside you," said Biro.

Despite no longer serving on Tallahassee’s police review board, Biro defends its work.

"So, the idea that the police review board, the transparency of the review board is anything but helpful, if the idea of accountability is scary to you, then that’s the problem,” she said.

Tallahassee’s civilian oversight board sat dormant for nearly a year after the incident involving Biro’s cup. It was reconstituted last year with new members deemed more friendly to law enforcement.

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.