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'We want transparency': Police reform bills target rehiring of tarnished officers

Capital Bureau
USA TODAY NETWORK – FLORIDA

Florida lawmakers have introduced legislation to increase police accountability and prevent tarnished officers who were forced out of their jobs from being hired elsewhere.

The legislation follows a USA TODAY NETWORK – Florida investigation that found at least 505 of those law enforcement and corrections officers who were given a second chance in the last 30 years later committed offenses so egregious they were decertified.

The vast majority of those second-chance officers went on to commit some form of crime, ranging from drug offenses to sexual assault to murder, leaving a trail of victims and at least two dozen lawsuits.

The backstory:Dozens of deputies lied, cheated and stole. This Florida sheriff hired them anyway.

In case you missed it:Florida gave thousands of tarnished officers a second chance. Hundreds blew it again.

In the Sunshine State, an officer with a record of on-duty criminal activity can move from job to job with surprisingly little difficulty and even less accountability, the network's investigation found. Even offenses committed before someone applies to a law enforcement agency that could have resulted in decertification are not stopping people from becoming certified officers.

Two bills seek to increase accountability and transparency in the hiring process by providing additional criminal history screening standards for applicants, and requiring applicants to pass a psychological screening and to provide names of any prior law enforcement agency employers.

State Sen. Bobby Powell, D-West Palm Beach, filed the Senate bill (SB 992), and state Rep. Travaris McCurdy, D-Orlando, introduced the House version (HB 505). 

The legislation also would require law enforcement employers to prohibit the employment of an applicant until information is provided by previous employers. Applicants could not have been "convicted of any felony or of a misdemeanor involving perjury or a false statement" or of "any felony or misdemeanor involving moral turpitude, including petit larceny, within the last 3 years."

The bills have already been referred to committees, records show, but neither has been heard in the run-up to the 2021 legislative session, which begins March 2. 

There currently are laws on the books, but they’re ignored by local law enforcement and the state agency responsible for overseeing standards policies, according to a Palm Beach Post editorial: “Lawmakers must amend existing law to send the clear message that allowing bad cops to move between jobs with ease will no longer be tolerated.” 

From The Palm Beach Post:Editorial: Toughen Florida law to put kibosh on careers of bad cops

Powell told the Post that the legislation “will be a step in the right direction. ... It’ll put more teeth to make sure it’s easier to access this information and make it available so that bad actors in law enforcement can’t jump from job to job.”

More:Black caucus calls for police changes that break with Florida governor

Two other police transparency bills, which were also filed by members of Florida’s Legislative Black Caucus, would create a statewide police misconduct registry by July 2022. State Sen. Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando, filed the Senate bill (SB 480), and state Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, introduced the House version (HB 277). 

Their parallel bills would require the Department of Law Enforcement to post the discipline database on its website in a searchable format and include complaints against officers that were found to be credible or that resulted in disciplinary action, as well as complaints for which the officer was exonerated or which were determined to be unfounded, and whether the complaint involved a use of force or discriminatory profiling. 

The database would also list officers’ terminations and the reason why, lawsuits against officers and their settlements, and instances in which a law enforcement officer resigned or retired while under active investigation related to a use of force.

Thompson, House sponsor of the database bill, said former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin had a vacation home in her Central Florida district that became the site of protests after he was recorded kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, who died in police custody. 

Thompson noted that Chauvin had a history of complaints for excessive force: “In a database, that should’ve raised a red flag,” she said. 

With better tracking through a database, Thompson added, “there could be intervention, there can be training, there can be disciplinary action and to prevent a person who is decertified as a law enforcement officer from leaving one county and going to another county. We want transparency.” 

Other police reform bills backed by Florida’s Legislative Black caucus this year are also aimed at police tactics and accountability. They include promoting police use of body and dashboard cameras, restricting "no-knock" arrest warrants, limiting the use of military equipment by law enforcement agencies and improving data collection on use-of-force incidents.

The Democratic-dominated Black Caucus faces tough odds of getting the measures advanced in the Republican-controlled Legislature.

The two-part investigation into hiring practices, by the Naples Daily News and The (Fort Myers) News-Press, found that officers were able to find work because the main burden for weeding out bad hires in Florida is put on local agencies, and the minimum requirements for officers, established by a state law that some criminal justice experts criticize as weak, did not explicitly disqualify them from employment.

The same minimum requirements have left hundreds of questionable hires currently on agency payrolls, including dozens of officers with such poor character that they could be barred from testifying in court.

USA TODAY NETWORK - Florida Capital Bureau reporter John Kennedy contributed to this report.