OUR POSITION: A new state law seems to have good intentions to force more transparency on use of force incidents in Florida police arrests but the impact may fall short of what’s needed.
When Gov. Ron DeSantis signed HB 7051 into law recently, there was speculation it would boldly redefine how information on arrests that require police officers to take down a suspect with force — even if that results in a fatal shooting.
The bill covers other aspects of law enforcement practices, including changes to expectations for corrections officers in state prisons.
For the record, here is what the bill says:
Requires application for employment or appointment as law enforcement or correctional officer to contain specified disclosures; requires background investigation of applicant to include specified information; requires employing agencies to maintain employment information for minimum period; requires establishment of standards for officer training and policies concerning use of force; requires law enforcement agencies to establish policies for specified use of force investigations; requires investigation to include an independent report; requires report to be submitted to state attorney; requires law enforcement agencies to submit specified data to FDLE; prohibits child younger than certain age from being arrested, charged, or adjudicated delinquent for delinquent act or violation of law.
All of that is good even though most agencies already meet those requirements, thank goodness.
But the line that caught our attention is the requirement that investigations must include an independent report. That means you can’t investigate an incident in your own department without an outside agency, professional or independent investigator giving it a second look.
There have been several incidents where local law enforcement has had to use force in the past couple of years — most notably in Charlotte County where deputies shot and killed suspects.
Bradley Rundle, a 61-year-old Englewood man, was killed in 2019 by deputies who responded to a family disturbance, after Rundle began firing at them. Rundle had served 20 years in the military and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, according to his family.
Sean Constance, 37, of Sarasota, was shot and killed by a Charlotte County deputy in training in February after he got out of a car during a traffic stop and immediately pulled out a gun, reportedly firing at the deputy and his trainer.
We’ve written about both instances in the past, mostly about the use of Marsy’s Law to hide the name of the deputies involved from the public. We don’t agree that was the intent of Marsy’s Law.
But the other consideration is that the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office did its own investigation and cleared the deputies of any wrongdoing.
We have no reason at all to suspect otherwise. But it is troubling when a department investigates itself — especially in a case that involved the death of a civilian.
Sarasota County Sheriff Kurt Hoffman said his department has long had the policy of investigating any similar incidents.
“No one is more equipped to investigate officer-involved shootings than us,” Hoffman said. “We have an officer-involved shooting team with more than 100 years of collective experience. We even have a memorandum of understanding with Venice and North Port police to do their investigations.”
Hoffman said his agency’s findings are then turned over to the State Attorney’s Office for review. That can lead to the SAO signing off, calling for a grand jury or bringing criminal charges.
We hope Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office has the same policy. But since no one at the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office responded to an email request for information, we don’t know that. A spokesperson for the 20th Judicial Circuit State Attorneys Office said they did review two deadly shootings by the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office that involved an Englewood man in 2019 and a Sarasota man last year.
In essence, we applaud the State Legislature and Gov. DeSantis for attempting to set a standard policy for all police and corrections officers to live by.
However, in the case of fatal shootings, it will only work if the office or people reviewing the case are truly independent. We would expect that to be the case.