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Florida votes to weaken police oversight boards

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Florida's legislature has voted to cut the powers of local boards that look into police misconduct. These are the citizen oversight groups that cities around the country formed as police abuses came into the spotlight. Margie Menzel of member station WFSU reports from Tallahassee, where the local board came under criticism because of an item that one member brought to meetings.

MARGIE MENZEL, BYLINE: When Florida lawmakers talk about putting limits on police oversight groups, they often mention a notorious coffee mug. It said abolish the police. Board member Taylor Biro would bring the mug to meetings of Tallahassee's Citizen Police Review Board as recently as 2022. It caught the eye of police groups, and the city commission removed her from the board even though she said her relations with police had been cordial. She trained officers who deal with sexual violence, and police sometimes visited a youth center that she ran.

TAYLOR BIRO: Where they understood that I didn't want them coming in in uniform. I didn't want them coming in unannounced. It wasn't a space to arrest kids, and a lot of law enforcement get it. They pick it up. They know that not everybody when they see a cop thinks, I'm safer now.

MENZEL: But the mug controversy came to the attention of Republican state Senator Blaise Ingoglia, who took the matter to the legislature.

BLAISE INGOGLIA: They had a mug with an offensive saying on there. That person for that board had a mug for the civilian review board that said F the police.

MENZEL: The mug didn't actually say that, although the F word was on it somewhere. There are 21 oversight boards in Florida. Tallahassee's, and some others around the country, formed after a Minnesota police officer murdered George Floyd four years ago. Their powers vary widely, but some have investigators and call on police to appear before them, drawing opposition. Here's Barney Bishop, the CEO of a Florida group, the Smart Justice Alliance.

BARNEY BISHOP: And if I'm a law enforcement officer, why do I want to come in and talk to a bunch of people that, No. 1, don't like me, are inclined to be against me and don't care about my constitutional rights? So these things are kangaroo courts, and they need to go away.

MENZEL: The legislature passed a bill saying oversight should be uniform statewide. It bars local governments from passing laws for civilian boards to oversee or investigate complaints of police misconduct. And it lets police chiefs and sheriffs form their own boards to review general policies, training and systemic problems.

WYMAN DUGGAN: I understand the sentiment that they help build community trust. They will be able to continue talking about policies, procedures, training, culture, systemic abuses, patterns and practices of behavior. All they will not be able to do is receive, process and investigate instances of misconduct.

MENZEL: That's Republican State Representative Wyman Duggan of Jacksonville, one of the bill's sponsors. Arizona and Tennessee have also taken steps to water down local civilian review boards. But Taylor Biro, the owner of the mug, says it's telling that anybody should be against hearing multiple views.

BIRO: The idea that the police review board, the transparency of the review board, is anything but helpful - if the idea of accountability is scary to you, then that's the problem.

MENZEL: A 2021 study by the LeRoy Collins Institute at Florida State University found that Black people were arrested at lower rates in places with oversight boards.

SHARON FAIRLEY: Some police departments may need to have oversight that has full, independent investigative responsibilities - right? - because that's what's needed in that community.

MENZEL: That's University of Chicago law professor Sharon Fairley, a former prosecutor who worked on an oversight board in Chicago. She says local communities should set the course for the boards.

FAIRLEY: Policing powers are amongst the most serious powers that we bestow on our government, and because we are a democracy, we citizens should have a say in how those powers are executed.

MENZEL: The Tallahassee City Commission has said the bill would effectively dissolve the city's oversight board. Now it goes for signing to Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, who's been a close ally of law enforcement groups. For NPR News, I'm Margie Menzel in Tallahassee.

(SOUNDBITE OF J. COLE SONG, "FORBIDDEN FRUIT (FT. KENDRICK LAMAR)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Margie Menzel