DeSantis rolls back independent police oversight

Policy Corner

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) quietly signed into law two bills that will make it harder for citizens to hold police officers accountable for civil rights violations. 

And at the end of last week, DeSantis ratified House Bill 601 and Senate Bill 184, the former of which prevents independent citizen review boards from scrutinizing misconduct by law enforcement and the latter bars individuals from being within 25 feet of a police officer “engaged in the lawful performance of a legal duty.” This would make filming an incident like the one that cost George Floyd his life more difficult for bystanders witnessing police brutality. 

“They’ll set up these things called citizen review boards, usually in these very-tilted-politically jurisdictions,” DeSantis said during the signing last Friday. “They’ll stack it with activists, and they’ll just start reviewing things and trying to put people under the gun even if there’s no basis to do that.”

“They’re not free to use law enforcement as political piñatas,” DeSantis continued. “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.”

Efforts by DeSantis and police officials to undermine such committees seems retaliatory, especially since many of these citizen review boards were formed in the wake of the 2020 protests against police brutality. While these boards have no ability to discipline officers and have little legal authority, they are capable of meticulously reviewing cases of misconduct that are pronounced “closed” by police and sheriff's departments. 

And though HB 601 doesn’t outright ban citizen review, it will allow law enforcement to form their own, new police misconduct boards, which will be constituted on terms favorable to the police. Whether they replace citizen boards is unclear. 

HB 601 states that these new boards will “review the policies and procedures of his or her office and its subdivisions” and “must be composed of at least three and up to seven members appointed by the sheriff, one of which shall be a retired law enforcement officer.”

While Florida activists maintained that they will continue to utilize citizen review boards regardless of the language in the bill, those within the police bureaucracy view the law as a useful countermeasure. 

Brandon Barclay, the president of the police union Tampa Police Benevolent Association, told the Miami Herald and the Tampa Bay Times that DeSantis’ exploits meant things would not return to “business as usual.”

“[Barclay] said the legislation is a useful step that will encourage more uniformity statewide, instead of the current patchwork of boards which have a range of structures and abilities,” the article states. 

But according to organizers in Florida that have spent the past few years attempting to reform policing in the state, such restructuring was unnecessary. 

“Civilian oversight works,” Michael Sampson, a member of the Jacksonville Community Action Committee, explained to the Florida Phoenix in February when the bill was first announced. 

“Civilian oversight makes it so that officers have to understand that if they do something crazy, it’s going to be the public looking at them … If they take away our right to even have oversight review over what police do, what else are they coming for? This is the stripping of our democratic right to control how our communities are policed.”

Subscribe to The Lede

Sign up now to get access to the library of members-only issues.
Jamie Larson