Long-sought House deal on police reforms heads to hearing
Image via Florida House.

Rep. Fentrice Driskell was a key player in negotiations on behalf of the Legislative Black Caucus.

A House panel will consider legislation to prevent excessive use of force by police officers across the state.

In a 9 a.m. meeting Thursday, the House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to take up a measure (PCB JDC 21-01), the product of negotiations between House leadership and the Florida Legislative Black Caucus. The package tackles a broad range of police and correctional officer reforms that have bipartisan support.

Democratic Rep. Fentrice Driskell was a key player in the Black Caucus’ negotiations with House leadership. Part of the provisions came out of the Legislative Black Caucus’ package of police reform proposals unveiled in February, ahead of Session.

“I’m very happy with the bill,” Driskell told Florida Politics. “It’s really just the beginning, and it opens the door to have these conversations.”

Negotiations were held directly with House Speaker Chris Sprowls and his leadership team members, including Judiciary Committee Chairman Daniel Perez and Criminal Justice and Public Safety Subcommittee Chairman Cord Byrd. Byrd will present the proposed committee bill, known in Tallahassee parlance as a “PCB,” before the Judiciary Committee.

“Ultimately, it all came down to Speaker Sprowls and his vision for what policy proposals he wanted to include in a PCB this session,” Driskell said. “We’re very glad to see that there was a great deal of agreement in terms of some of the more important provisions, and that’s what you see as a result in the PCB.”

In a press availability Wednesday, Sprowls noted he voiced support for police reforms when the Legislature first convened in November. He predicted bipartisan support for the measure during the Judiciary Committee meeting.

“In that speech, you’ll recall I gave a defense of the police and of policing,” he added. “I also said that my mind and my door would be open to good ideas.”

The proposed bill would call for basic training on proportional use of force, including de-escalation techniques, intervening in another officer’s excessive use of force and chokeholds. Chokeholds, which became central to national conversations around the use of force following the death of George Floyd after a Minneapolis police knelt on his neck, could only be used when an “officer perceives an immediate threat of serious bodily injury or death to themselves or another person,” the bill outlines.

The legislation also creates the “Kaia Rolle Act,” preventing children younger than 7 from being arrested or charged for crimes that aren’t forcible felonies. Both chambers passed similar legislation last year, but the broader school safety bill that contained that language died on the Regular Session’s final day after the then-developing COVID-19 pandemic helped derail negotiations.

For Driskell, one of the bill’s most important provisions is training teaching officers to intervene if they believe another officer is using excessive force. She called that “a huge piece” of the proposal.

“As we watched the trial for the murder of George Floyd, you can’t help but wonder if there had been a policy like that in place, could it have made a difference if those officers had been trained to know that they have a duty to intervene anytime they see one of their counterparts engaging in behavior that appears to be excessive force,” Driskell said.

The Minneapolis cop charged in Floyd’s death, Derek Chauvin, is currently on trial, capturing much of the nation’s attention.

The first hearing for the House’s police reform proposal also comes ahead of what is expected to be the final passage of Republican’s anti-riot bill (HB 1) in the Senate later Thursday. Democrats argue the bill, spawned as a result of violence associated with some “Black Lives Matter” protests over the summer, would stifle minority voices.

“It makes you just ask that question — it’s almost like, what are we doing here at the Legislature?” Driskell asked. “Like, who do we want to be as a Legislature? Who do we want to be as a state? This is not who I believe we want to be.”

When reporters asked whether the police reform compromise came because of pushback to the anti-riot bill, Sprowls said the two “have absolutely nothing to do with one another.”

“Many of those things in there are things that I have said publicly I support,” Sprowls said. “including the data transfer elements.”

While negotiations between the Black Caucus and Republican leadership began a few months ago, the Caucus had been meeting all summer in the aftermath of Floyd’s death.

Not all of the Black Caucus’ proposed reforms made it into the House package, but Driskell said lawmakers could push for more next year, noting the shrinking window that remains to pass legislation.

One step that remains is to get a companion legislation moving in the Senate.

Similar bills already exist in the upper chamber, which has appeared to be more willing of the two to pass criminal justice reform in past years. Sen. Jason Pizzo, a Miami-Dade Democrat, is carrying one proposal (SB 1970) that currently awaits a hearing at its final committee stop. Sen. Danny Burgess is shepherding the anti-riot bill through the Senate. The Zephyrhills Republican also has a bill (SB 1818) with two committee stops remaining.

The timing of police reform legislation and what it meant for the state’s priorities became a point of contention for Pizzo during questioning Wednesday as he opposed the anti-riot bill.

With the backdrop of Chauvin’s trial, the anti-riot measure would take effect immediately upon Gov. Ron DeSantis‘ signature, possibly in a matter of days. But other policing bills, including the House deal, aren’t scheduled to take effect until July 1.

Without a prompt from Pizzo, Burgess suggested a possible path to equalize the Legislature’s priorities.

“I would submit that maybe we could also change the effective dates in those bills and get them going right away,” Burgess said.

Renzo Downey

Renzo Downey covers state government for Florida Politics. After graduating from Northwestern University in 2019, Renzo began his reporting career in the Lone Star State, covering state government for the Austin American-Statesman. Shoot Renzo an email at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @RenzoDowney.


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