A bipartisan bill aimed at reforming law enforcement practices is awaiting Governor Ron DeSantis' signature. House Bill 7051 lays the groundwork for some impactful changes in Florida, but some say it doesn't go far enough.
"There [were] more than 50 bills filed. They never made it to the floor," said Rep. Dianne Hart (D-Hillsborough).
Rep. Hart was one of the Legislative Black Caucus members to file a flurry of bills aiming to change the policies and practices of state law enforcement. But she says the power struggle between her party and republicans made that mission impossible.
"You have to remember they're in charge, and we're not," she said.
Hart says the speaker of the house insisted the two parties collaborate on a police reform bill, and HB 7051 was filed. It pulls from at least 18 related bills, the majority never making it out of committees.
The bipartisan bill delves into several areas, including the following:
- Making it mandatory for departments to send use of force data to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement quarterly.
- Adding more training for officers.
- Requiring agencies to keep employment information for a minimum of five years to help hiring managers see trends of bad behavior.
"I see all upsides to that. I see no downsides to that whatsoever," Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said.
With 39 years of law enforcement experience under his belt, 11 of them as Pinellas County Sheriff, Gualtieri says he's been a fan of transparency, even helping pioneer the FBI's use of force database.
"I spent a lot of time in Washington, D.C.," Gualtieri said. "We were the first agency in Florida to participate in that; there are some agencies that didn't and some agencies that still don't."
Whether it's sweeping reform or minor tweaks, Sheriff Gualtieri says those changes will come from conversations.
"Some people may say this is a naive answer, but I still believe in the power of good and effective communication," Gualtieri said.
And nothing spoke louder than the chants coming from the streets of cities across the country this past year after the death of George Floyd. Demands from activists became key buzzwords in the national conversation around police reform.
"The people are calling for it, 'Oh my God. We have to ban no-knock search warrants,'" Gualtieri said. "We don't even have the authority. And haven't had for years, the ability to do these."
Florida is actually one of two states that prohibits no-knock warrants, with a few exceptions. And it's been that way since 1994.
"So why are people calling for it? Because it becomes the flavor of the day," Gualtieri said.
"I'm not sure that it necessarily is a bad thing," Kirk Bailey with ACLU Florida said.
Bailey works for the advocacy group as its policy director. He says catchy phrases like "defund the police" can start an important dialogue.
"If those questions are prompted because somebody used the buzzword that sparked somebody's curiosity, well, that's all the better for the overall public debate about these issues," Bailey said.
He also believes grassroots advocacy could take police reform much farther than legislators.
"Organizations like ours and Black Lives Matter and others are going to continue to look at the more controversial issues and continue to push forward, whether it's via litigation or advocacy," Bailey said. "Don't wait for the Florida legislature to figure it out, because like I said, you'll be waiting around for a decade."
We contacted Governor Ron DeSantis' office about a possible timeline on when he would sign HB 7051 but didn't get a reply back. He has until July 1 to sign it, or legislators will have to file it and pass it all over again.