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Florida ‘Defund The Police’ Bill Would Strip Local Governments Of Final Say On Police Pensions And Budgets

Protesters holding banners are seen marching as they lead a Justice for Floyd rally in the neighborhood of Wynwood in Miami, Sunday, June 7, 2020.
Sam Navarro/Special for the Miami Herald
Protesters holding banners are seen marching as they lead a Justice for Floyd rally in the neighborhood of Wynwood in Miami, Sunday, June 7, 2020.

Decisions about municipal police budgets would be transferred to Tallahassee, in what some local officials say is an "overstep" of authority.

This post has been updated.

During widespread protests against police violence last summer, city leaders in St. Petersburg had an idea of how to address the underlying concerns of many protesters’ calls to “defund the police.”

The city had a pot of money it was planning to use to hire 25 new police officers. But instead of hiring the new officers, the city could use that money to create a “Community Assistance Liaison” program, and hire mental health workers to respond to calls. Mental health professionals under the program would begin responding to wellness calls and be the ones who primarily interact with the homeless. The thinking was that experts in deescalating volatile situations should respond to those calls, and not armed police officers.

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“This is a way that we can help be a little smarter and a little more efficient to let police do the job that they're really trained to do,” said Darden Rice, a St. Petersburg council member. “For the people in our community that need a different type of assistance, we're trying to do our best to provide a service call to them that they really deserve.”

The city council passed the idea in January, and the city signed a nine-month $850,000 contract with Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services. Just a few weeks ago the team started being dispatched to calls. The program has a director and works closely with the police department.

But the program is already in the crosshairs of the Florida Legislature. A bill that has been described as a top priority for Gov. Ron DeSantis and Republican leadership in the Florida Legislature could ensure that a program like this is never created again.

The bill has become widely known and discussed for its potential impact on protesting and the First Amendment. Less discussed or understood is how it would strip local governments of their authority to make decisions about policing, and transfer that power to the governor and the Florida Cabinet.

A staff analysis of the twin bills HB1 and SB484 explicitly calls out St. Petersburg’s CAL program as an example of the sort of program the bill could prevent from happening in other cities across Florida.

If passed, the bill would allow the governor and the Cabinet to override locally elected commissioners, council members and mayors if police budgets are decreased, or if funds are redirected from them. The Cabinet could force cities to increase police budgets if they wish, potentially resulting in cities being forced to slash other services or raise taxes in order to balance their budgets.

The city could appeal and present its case before the Cabinet, but any decision made by the governor and Cabinet would be final.

“It gives the power of line item veto of the police budget to a very arbitrary process, and it really undermines an important public engagement process that's set by state statute in how we set our budget,” said Rice. “I don't want to see people get cynical or develop a negative attitude towards our police in our city because so many decisions about the budget end up getting caught up in the bureaucracy of of the state government in Tallahassee.”

“It's such an egregious overstep of powers,” she said.

'Defunding The Police' In The Crosshairs

The concept of "defunding the police" has become a political third-rail issue since the protests last summer. At its core, people who make calls to defund the police are calling for local governments to cut police budgets and use the cuts to fund increased social services, along the lines of what St. Petersburg has done. Some corners of the movement are calling for an outright abolition of police departments.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has become an outspoken critic of the movement. In a press conference announcing the idea for the bill last September, he said any city that cuts its police department budget would not receive any state funds, a prospect which would be a death blow for many municipal budgets.

"If you defund law enforcement, then the state of Florida is going to defund you," DeSantis said to applause at a campaign rally for former President Trump in October.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis delivers remarks to supporters at a campaign rally for President Donald Trump Friday, Oct. 23, 2020, in The Villages, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
John Raoux
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis delivers remarks to supporters at a campaign rally for President Donald Trump Friday, Oct. 23, 2020, in The Villages, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

The legislation itself doesn't go that far. But it would give DeSantis and the Cabinet a final say in local budget disputes.

Police unions are in favor of the legislation, and support DeSantis' efforts to stop the "defund the police" movement in its tracks.

“Thank God we live in Florida because defunding the police is an absolutely bad idea,” said John Kazanjian, the president of the Florida Police Benevolent Association.

The group represents more than 30,000 officers across the state. The association regularly screens candidates for city councils and mayoral seats, and some of their political positions alarm him.

“Some candidates right now running for some of these positions, they got some far out ideas,” he said.

On the liberal side, increasing talk about implementing programs like what they have in St. Petersburg and “defunding the police” are what perks his ears up.

But Kazanjian said the union also butts heads with local officials who are conservative.

“They got some wild things also where they want to take our pensions away, things like that,” said Kazanjian. “So thank God the government or the Governor could intervene and stop all that.”

Pensions And Public Input

Battles over police pensions are a perennial issue in municipal politics, as unions and elected officials play tug-of-war between revenue realities and union contracts.

Under the current bills in Tallahassee, the governor and the Cabinet would have a final say over those pension battles, state Rep. Juan Alfonso Fernandez Barquin, who introduced HB1, said in a meeting in January. He added that that provision could be changed at a later date.

WLRN attempted to interview Fernandez Barquin for this story, but he did not respond to multiple calls and emails. WLRN contacted every co-sponsor of the legislation in the Florida House and the Florida Senate through multiple methods, and none responded to requests to comment.

Issues with the bill stem from a basic lack of experience in local government from lawmakers in Tallahassee, said Hallandale Beach Commissioner Sabrina Javellana.

“A majority of state legislators as well as, you know, the entire Florida Cabinet have never served as local elected officials,” said Javellana. “They never served as a city commissioner, a county commissioner, a mayor, on a sewer and water board or a school board. They don’t come from a background of local government, they don’t really know how it works.”

Cities cannot borrow money haphazardly, she said, and they must balance their budgets accordingly. Javellana said she fears the proposal is yet another instance of the state government stripping power from local officials. The state government has already blocked local governments from everything from banning harmful sunscreens to putting bans on plastic bags and from imposing fines on residents who violate local safety rules during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We can’t deal with more of this oversight and overreach and unfunded mandates and preemptions, and the blockades that they’re throwing our way,” she said. “Anything you do to your police department budget — except for increase it — could be scrutinized.”

In St. Petersburg, chief of police and the Suncoast Police Benevolent Association, the local police union, gave the thumbs up for hiring mental health professionals instead of 25 new armed officers.

“Every police officer, community leader, and citizen I’ve spoken to agrees that it’s time for law enforcement to refocus,” said union president John Vazquez in a press conference last July . “We believe this will lead to a decreased strain on police resources, reduce risk to our member officers and better outcomes for our most vulnerable citizens that we serve.”

“It is time to allow the experts in fields like social services more opportunities for direct involvement in these incidents,” he added.

Even with the union’s blessing, the only thing that would be needed to trigger a review of the police budget by the governor and Cabinet is for a single complaint to be filed by a single resident — according to the bill.

Sheriff’s offices in Florida already reserve the right to contest their budgets to Tallahassee. Sheriffs have that right since they are considered “constitutional officers” in Florida — state positions who are elected at the county level.

The current bills in Tallahassee would create a budget process "similar to that available to a county sheriff,” according to a staff analysis of the bill.

“I don't want to see people get cynical or develop a negative attitude towards our police in our city because so many decisions about the budget end up getting caught up in the bureaucracy of of the state government in Tallahassee.”
Darden Rice, St. Petersburg council member

Unlike sheriffs, municipal police departments are headed by police chiefs who are appointed, and who answer to city commissions, councils and mayors. The bill would effectively give those appointed police chiefs or members of the community the ability to leapfrog those local officials and go directly to Tallahassee to settle budget disputes.

“This most definitely is intended to have a chilling effect on any city who would want the flexibility to approach police work in a different way,” said Rice, the St. Petersburg council member, about the proposed law.

She expects more local elected officials from across the political spectrum to take stances against the bill as understanding of its impact on local government is better understood.

“This is going after one of our core duties, core responsibilities,” said Rice. “It introduces politics where politics doesn’t belong. And I can tell you — our local citizens will not benefit from this.”

This post was updated to correct Sabrina Javellena's title, she is no longer vice mayor in Hallandale Beach.

Daniel Rivero is part of WLRN's new investigative reporting team. Before joining WLRN, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion. He can be reached at drivero@wlrnnews.org
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