Legislature approves bill creating harassment-free zone around first responders

Until prompted to do so, the sponsor neglected to mention that the distance was almost double what was previously approved.

After years of failed attempts, South Florida lawmakers have successfully passed legislation to enable police, firefighters and paramedics to establish a harassment-free zone around themselves while working in public.

Supporters have long maintained that it’s needed, citing a rise in violence and distrust of police and difficulties emergency medical technicians sometimes encounter at large-scale events.

Critics of the bill (SB 184), including a majority of County Commission members in Miami-Dade who voted against a 2021 resolution to support it, say it’s a veiled attempt to stop citizens from filming cops behaving badly.

The bill’s sponsor, Miami Springs Republican Sen. Bryan Ávila, reminded his colleagues before a 39-1 vote for the measure Thursday that nothing in the legislation prohibits recording police.

That, he said, is a “constitutionally permissible” action.

What he failed to mention, until West Palm Beach Democratic Sen. Bobby Powell pointed it out, was that the bill’s House sponsor, Hialeah Republican Rep. Alex Rizo, had recently almost doubled the distance onlookers would have to back up if ordered to do so.

The distance has fluctuated over the years, extending as far as 30 feet in prior bills Rizo carried. This year, the distance Rizo’s version of the bill (HB 75) originally proposed was 20 feet. Ávila’s measure, meanwhile, proposed 14 feet, which he explained is the length of an average car.

Rizo substituted Ávila’s bill for his, but on Wednesday he amended its language so that the distance was 25 feet. That is the long-accepted reactionary gap for police — the distance officers must keep between themselves and a suspected aggressor to respond to a sudden threat if the suspect’s hands aren’t visible.

Powell, who supported SB 184 when the Senate first held a floor vote on it Feb. 15, suggested that the distance added in the bill would have prevented the kind of recording that ultimately held former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin responsible for murdering George Floyd in May 2020.

“By increasing the distance … it (could) create an additional impediment,” he said, noting that being farther back would increase the likelihood of there being obstacles in the way.

Ávila said that with “the advance in technology” of mobile phones, 25 feet is not that far of a distance from which to record someone.

Hollywood Democratic Sen. Jason Pizzo, a former prosecutor, said the distance might not be enough and that it should be up to the on-site first responder to determine on a case-by-case basis.

Twenty-five feet would not have been enough after the June 2021 condo collapse in Surfside, he said. Nor would it have been after 9/11.

“That distance to get back is like a mile,” he said. “This is reasonable, (but) I think we’re going to have a lot of people saying, ‘This is 25 feet,’ (and refusing to move back more) when for their own safety and their own good 100 feet might have been more appropriate.”

That said, Pizzo continued, the distance argument is emblematic of a broader need for cops to wear body cameras, which studies have “empirically shown is (often) exculpatory to many law enforcement officers.”

Palm Harbor Republican Sen. Ed Hooper, a former Clearwater firefighter, and Kissimmee Democratic Sen. Vic Torres, a retired New York City Transit detective, agreed that the distance should be set on a discretionary basis.

But the bill passed as-is, with only Powell voting against it. The bill also received 27 “no” votes in the House Wednesday. All came from Democrats, many of whom shared Powell’s concerns that the measure will hinder efforts to keep police accountable.

Orlando Democratic Rep. LaVon Bracy Davis said Thursday that she is “deeply disappointed” that the bill passed with the changes Rizo made and without an amendment she proffered to explicitly provide that recording police is in and of itself harassment.

“We live in a society rife with historical injustices against Black people by the police, and camera phones have continuously protected minority communities from their stories being twisted and diminished, she said. “The only reason we know what happened to George Floyd is because of a girl who was filming his murder close by, and it is apparent to me today that this body is more concerned with the comfort of the police officer than it is with justice and truth.”

Rep. Dianne Hart, a Tampa Democrat, expressed similar dismay.

“This goes against the purpose of the legislative process and will make communities like mine less safe,” she said in a statement.

SB 184, which will next go to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk, provides that it is unlawful for a person to remain within 25 feet of a first responder with the intent to threaten, harass or interfere with their work, after being instructed to back away.

Beginning Jan. 1, 2025, violators will face a second-degree misdemeanor charge, punishable by up to 60 days in prison and a $500 fine.


Editor’s note: This report has been updated to include comments from Bracy Davis and Hart.

Jesse Scheckner

Jesse Scheckner has covered South Florida with a focus on Miami-Dade County since 2012. His work has been recognized by the Hearst Foundation, Society of Professional Journalists, Florida Society of News Editors, Florida MMA Awards and Miami New Times. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @JesseScheckner.

One comment

  • Stand With Law Enforcement

    March 7, 2024 at 4:36 pm

    A LEO saved my life. If you’re afraid of law enforcement, stop being a cun+ criminal.

Comments are closed.


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