DeSantis OKs Bills Halting Police Civilian Oversight, Stopping Bystanders From Getting Close

Jackie Llanos, Florida Phoenix

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed two bills Friday morning that would prohibit civilian oversight boards from investigating police misconduct and stop people from getting too close to first responders doing their jobs.

The governor received both bills (HB 601 and SB 184) on Wednesday and held the signing ceremony on Friday in the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office in St. Augustine. During the ceremony, DeSantis portrayed the bills as efforts to protect law enforcement officers from people who wanted to abuse them publicly.

“They’re not free to use law enforcement as political piñatas,” DeSantis said, referring to the civilian police oversight boards. “They’re not free to create false narratives. They’re not free to try to make it miserable to live or to work in uniform, and these things are highly political.”

In Florida, there are 21 such boards and half of them were formed since the protests over the murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020, according to a 2022 report. The boards are in cities including Miami, Tallahassee, Orlando, and Tampa.

Under HB 601, which will go into effect on July 1, the boards won’t be able to investigate complaints against law enforcement officers or correctional officers. Instead, sheriffs or chiefs of police will have the power to appoint overnight boards composed of three to seven members.

Equal Ground, a social justice organization aimed at protecting the rights of Black Floridians, bashed DeSantis’ approval of the bill.

“By banning independent citizen review boards, Gov. Ron DeSantis and legislators in Tallahassee are once again taking away the freedom of countless Floridians, whose voices are being silenced and whose safety is now at risk,” wrote Genesis Robinson, interim executive director of the group, in a statement.

He continued: “We know that civilian review boards are often the last line of defense for Black people to hold rogue law enforcement officials accountable for misconduct. Disbanding police review boards contradicts the ongoing efforts to reform policing practices and address systemic issues within law enforcement.”

But DeSantis and the main sponsor of the bill, Republican Rep. Wyman Duggan of Duval County, insisted that the law wouldn’t abolish the boards and that they could still discuss law enforcement policies.

“What they cannot do is use them as a vehicle to persecute our law enforcement officers, which to many of these organizations is the only utility that they think that organization has. So, when you hear people saying that these boards and commissions are being prohibited or abolished, that’s not true,” Duggan said during the bill signing.

However, the oversight boards can’t subpoena witnesses and documents, and none have any actual disciplinary power.

Protest

During the legislative session, HB 601 prompted a protest from activists infuriated with the move to strip civilian oversight boards of their power, of which the activists said the boards had little to begin with.

The other bill DeSantis signed Friday prohibits people from getting within 25 feet of a first responder “engaged in the lawful performance of a legal duty” if the first responder has warned the person to stay away. The infraction would be a misdemeanor. SB184 also garnered backlash from groups such as the First Amendment Foundation, which called the bill blatantly unconstitutional in a statement Thursday.

“We appreciate the importance of protecting first responders but are concerned that the bill prevents citizens from going near or filming first responders within 25 feet if told not to approach,” the First Amendment Foundation wrote. “This bill would undermine citizen journalists and could allow for undocumented police misconduct.”

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: info@floridaphoenix.com. Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.

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