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Miami-Dade's state attorney pushes bill to require police de-escalation, bias training

Miami Herald logo Miami Herald 2/24/2021 David Ovalle and Ana Ceballos, The Miami Herald

Feb. 24—Police officers statewide would be required to undergo "de-escalation" training and also intervene if a fellow cop is using excessive force under a bill being pushed by Miami-Dade's state attorney.

The draft bill, which will have Republican and Democratic sponsors and could be considered during the legislative session that begins March 2, would also require "implicit bias" training and bar the teaching of choke holds except in a "deadly force situation."

The floating of the training bill comes months after protests erupted in South Florida and the United States over the May death of George Floyd, who died from a knee to the neck from a Minneapolis police officer. The Black Lives Matter and social justice protests also sparked a backlash from Republican lawmakers in Florida and Gov. Ron DeSantis, who have vowed to stiffen punishment for protesters who turn violent or disruptive.

Whether the bill crafted by Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, a Democrat who was reelected in August amid opposition criticism of her long tenure in criminal justice reform, has a realistic chance at passing remains unclear. But it has garnered the support of key figures in South Florida law enforcement, including the Miami-Dade Association of Chiefs of Police and the South Florida Police Benevolent Association.

"Dade County can be a leader for the rest of Florida," Fernandez Rundle said of increased training statewide. "We want it to be uniform across the state of Florida."

PBA President Steadman Stahl said the bill calls for training approaches that already take place in Miami-Dade County, where choke holds were banned in June.

"We support anything that's going to make the officers' job safer and improve working conditions," Stahl said.

The bill is the latest in a string of criminal-justice reform bills that have been filed in the wake of Floyd's death and last summer's protests.

Members of the Florida Legislative Black Caucus have filed more than a dozen measures that aim to move toward what they call "fair and just policing." Other Democrat-sponsored measures would create a centralized state database for police misconduct, allow victims of excessive police force to seek compensation from the state, and ban law enforcement officers from acquiring certain military equipment and using tear gar on lawful protests and assemblies.

"We want a database in Florida so there can be intervention, there can be training, and there can be disciplinary action," said Rep. Geraldine Thompson, a Windermere Democrat sponsoring legislation for the police misconduct database.

Those proposals, however, are unlikely to pass in the Republican-dominated Legislature and stand in contrast to the tone DeSantis and Republican leaders have set on policing ahead of this year's legislative session. When House Speaker Chris Sprowls delivered his opening address to new lawmakers after the November election, he made his pro-law enforcement message clear.

Sprowls, the son of a retired New York City police officer, said he would welcome "thoughtful, fact-based" conversations on how to improve policing in Florida. But he urged House members to not pursue policy that aims to blame "all of the law enforcement for the sins of a few."

So far, Republican leaders have only embraced one policing proposal: a crackdown on what DeSantis has termed "violent agitators." DeSantis' proposal would create tougher penalties for crimes that already exist simply because a person was part of a group. Critics worry the proposed criminal enhancements would disproportionately impact communities of color and aggravate community distrust of police.

The bill floated by Fernandez Rundle's office is narrower in scope than other Democratic proposals, deals primarily with training and has at least one supporter among the ranks of Republican lawmakers.

In the Senate, it will be sponsored by Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman Jason Pizzo, D-Miami, a former Miami-Dade prosecutor. As chairman, Pizzo has influence over criminal justice police this year. Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez, R-Miami, said she will be co-sponsoring the measure, giving it bipartisan support and increased likelihood of gaining traction.

"I'm a very big supporter of our police. The vast majority of our police are honorable, hard-working decent people that just want to do the right thing," Rodriguez said. "It's important to have some type of uniformity in terms of training and sensitivity and having those guard rails in place."

State Rep. Nick Duran, D-Miami, will be sponsoring the proposal in the House, Pizzo said. Prior to filing legislation, Pizzo said he has been in communication with a number of local and county law enforcement organizations, including the Fraternal Order of Police and the Florida Police Benevolent Association.

An Evolving Approach

Supporters of police reform across the country have called for more "de-escalation" training, which can teach officers to verbally diffuse potentially violent confrontations with citizens.

In South Florida, beyond police shootings, the use of physical force has come into sharp focus in recent years with a series of high-profile rough arrests.

That includes the case of a Miami-Dade police officer who was ordered fired after he used a so-called "distraction strike" against an angry woman at Miami International Airport in August, and a Miami Gardens officer who was arrested after he pulled a woman out of a car and repeatedly stunned her with a Taser stun gun.

Miami-Dade prosecutors have charged a series of officers in those cases — but have also seen juries repeatedly acquit them.

Fernandez Rundle said the bill had its origin in a prayer walk held by church, community and law enforcement leaders — during the height of the summer's Floyd protests — held in Downtown Miami in June, and that led to a State Attorney's Continuing Justice Reform Commission, which held a virtual town hall meeting last month.

"This is the opportunity to pass a police training bill that will empower our law enforcement officers and save lives — the lives of our community members and the lives of our police," said Miami Pastor Carl Johnson, of the 93rd Street Baptist Church, who participated in the walk and the reform commission. "The diversity of the various groups supporting this legislation provides us a real opportunity for meaningful transformation."

The bill would mandate the extra training as part of standards created through the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the statewide police agency that oversees police officer certification. It would also push for additional resources for mental-health and wellness support for officers dealing with the strains of the job.

If passed, it would require police agencies to adopt a written policy that officers have an "affirmative duty to utilize de-escalation techniques in his or her interactions with citizens wherever possible."

The bill would also include uniform "crisis intervention training," to help officers deal with people suffering from mental illness, disabilities or substance abuse issues. Police officers in Miami-Dade have for years undergone such training under a lauded program spearheaded by Miami-Dade County Judge Steven Leifman, a well-known advocate for better treatment of the mentally ill.

"South Florida agencies, particularly in Miami-Dade, are already way ahead in terms of reform," said Miami Beach Police Major David de la Espriella, the president of the Miami-Dade chiefs of police association.

As for the training for implicit bias, attitudes and stereotypes that cause people to act and make decisions in a subconscious manner has become a major talking point in the recent reform movement.

In September, the Miami Heat announced it would pay for city of Miami police to undergo similar training. Miami-Dade prosecutors have also undergone implicit bias training.

Key Biscayne Police Chief Chuck Press, who heads the Dade Chiefs reform committee and supports the bill, said the training is valuable for helping officers in "understanding the psychology of all the people we deal with."

"This really comes down to becoming a better-trained police officer," Press said.

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