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Barbara Watson proposes statewide commission to review police shootings

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Last year, the city of Tampa joined Orlando, Miami, Key West and St. Petersburg as the only municipalities in Florida with Citizens Review Boards to police actions and policies.

According to a South Florida House Democrat, that’s not nearly comprehensive enough to keep a watchful eye on deadly interactions between the police and the public.

And that’s why Miami Beach Gardens Representative Barbara Watson filed a bill last week that would create special review commission to reveal fatal use-of-force incidents by law enforcement personnel.

“I think there’s a loss of confidence with the community” when it comes to some cases of police shootings, Watson said Tuesday. “And once the community knows the process and knows what level of that process the investigation is in, I think it kind of restores their confidence in the system this should be a parallel investigation, independent of the police department, and that they can move forward with confidence.”

The proposal, HB 43, calls for a 15-member board selected by the attorney general, all of whom would serve a four-year term. The bill says that at least five members must not come from a local law enforcement agency, nor the Florida Departments of Law Enforcement, Corrections, or Legal Affairs.

Obviously, that means that as many as 10 officials could be from those agencies. Sitting judges and members of the Legislature would not be allowed to serve on the committee.

The bill calls for the head of a local law enforcement agency to contact the commission with 24 hours after a use of force has resulted in the death of a member of the public. That police chief or sheriff would also need to contact the agency within a week after an internal affairs report was completed regarding such an incident.

If that report exonerated the officer(s) in question, the commission, after reviewing the case, could call on the Attorney General for “prosecution consideration if the use of force appears unlawful.”

The commission would also have subpoena power, something eluding activists who in 2015 called for an independent citizens review board in Tampa. Many of those same activists said they intended to put a charter amendment on this November’s ballot to allow such subpoena power, but they failed to do so.

There have also been complaints about how the power of other such civilian review boards. “We’re so limited,” Orlando citizens review board member Pati Howard told the Orlando Sentinel in January. “The way we are set up, we are not serving much of a purpose.”

“There’s no way an investigative team could function without subpoena abilities,” said Watson. “And the chemistry and makeup of the actual committee is extremely important.” She still may make a few “tweaks” to the bill before next year, such as having an independent medical coroner be involved in investigating such incidents.

“Representative Watson’s bill establishing an independent commission to review fatal police shootings is exactly how lawmakers should respond to the growing Black Lives Matter movement and the concerns the movement raises about criminal justice reform and the role police officers play in our communities,” said Laila Abdelaziz, Legislative & Government Affairs Director for CAIR Florida. CAIR was one of the groups that pushed for the citizen’s review board in Tampa.

“This measure will increase transparency, accountability, and places trust between law enforcement and the communities they patrol at the forefront of how we move forward together as a community,” she added.

Representatives from both the Florida Police Chief Association and the Florida Sheriffs Association said that their organizations will review the legislation soon, and would not comment until then.

Watson is aware that most police departments aren’t necessarily enthusiastic about having another agency overseeing their actions, but says it’s necessary to prevent the types of civil unrest that have occurred recently in other parts of the nation as well as Florida.

“I don’t know that it’s happening so much in Florida, but Miami and Florida tend to mimic what happens around the nation,” Watson said. “If we don’t get a handle on this we could see riots developing out of a very innocent and very legitimate shooting.”

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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