Florida lawmakers take step to promote police accountability

FILE - This April 23, 2019, file photo shows the Florida Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Phil Sears, File)
FILE - This April 23, 2019, file photo shows the Florida Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Phil Sears, File) (Copyright 2019 the Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Victor Torres, a retired New York City lawman, watched the videos that day in May showing a Minnesota cop lodging a knee against the neck of a Black man named George Floyd.

“It should never have happened," Torres said. “It's sad when you have the loss of a life for a $20 counterfeit bill."

For another retired law officer, Chuck Brannan, the manner in which Floyd died brought shame to the badge: "No good policeman wants a policeman that’s gonna do things that are bad or make the rest of us look bad.”

After spending years enforcing the law, Torres and Brannan now make law in the Florida Legislature — including support for a proposal on the verge of passage that takes aim at keeping bad cops off the streets or doing harm to the reputation of those upholding law and order.

As public furor has grown over how police treat Black people, law enforcement agencies have come under increasing pressure to examine their tactics — to focus on deescalation instead of choke holds and deadly force. And it has forced them to address the uneasy relationships with the communities they serve.

“Americans across the country have been calling for police reform. The murder of George Floyd has been a galvanizing incident, bringing much-needed attention to this crisis,” said Rep. Fentrice Driskell, a cosponsor of the House bill that is now being taken up by Senate that would require law enforcement agencies across the state to review use-of-force policies.

The House proposal, which was advanced to the Senate floor Tuesday, would also compel law officers to intervene if one of their own goes too far and to render medical aid to people in distress.

The legislation comes as a symbolic olive branch just weeks after Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law sweeping legislation clamping down on protesters who turn violent, a reaction to the Black Lives Matter demonstrations that roiled the country the summer after Floyd’s death.

The new law stiffens penalties against protesters who turn violent and creates new felonies for organizing or participating in a violent demonstration.

The anti-riot bill was a key concern of Florida’s legislative Black caucus. After losing that battle, it has now focused on helping rewrite rules on law enforcement practices.

The proposal before lawmakers would require law enforcement agencies to launch independent investigations -- conducted by another law enforcement agency -- of any incidents leading to a death. It would also require applicants for law enforcement jobs to disclose if they are under investigation or if they left jobs under the cloud of investigation.

“It increases the level of accountability and training in our profession," said Steve Zona, the president of the Jacksonville Fraternal Order of Police. "You can hold up this legislation as an example to everybody around the country on how to stop talking at each other.”

The bipartisan proposal is being hailed by some, including law enforcement officials, as an accomplishment at a time when emotions remain raw over of the anti-riot bill and continuing concern over how police treat Black people.

“Whether this was an olive branch or not, it's desperately needed,” said Sen. Randolph Bracy, a member of the legislative Black caucus, noting all the previous attempts to bring accountability to law enforcement agencies.

“This is a small step, and there's tons of room to do more,” he said.

One proposal sought to make it a felony for a law enforcement officer to knowingly look the other way when another law enforcement officer uses unjustified force that leads to death and punishes officers for failing to give medical aid when warranted.

As Floyd suffocated under the weight and force of police Officer Derek Chauvin's knee, other officers stood by and bystanders captured the scene on video. A jury convicted Chauvin of murder.

For Torres, now a member of the Florida Senate, the Floyd case underscores the need for action.

“I think officers need to understand that you could prevent a lot of things happening that will be detrimental, not only to the person who’s being arrested but also to your department,” said Torres, a Democrat.

“You need to be accountable to stop this type of force when you see it in front of you,” he said.

Brannan, a Republican House member whose father was a state trooper and who has worked in law enforcement for three decades, said justice prevailed in the Floyd case but cautioned those who might cast police officers as villains.

“There’s bad apples in everything,” said Brannan, noting that the vast majority of interactions between police and the public end well.

“Armchair quarterbacking is easy to do,” Brannan said, “but when you’re in the hot seat, it’s tough out there.”