New law signed by DeSantis could dismantle Fort Lauderdale’s police oversight board

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Florida cities were left scrambling earlier this month when Gov. Ron DeSantis signed House Bill 601, limiting how government-affiliated civilian boards can investigate the behavior of local law enforcement officers.

Fort Lauderdale commissioners will discuss the fate of the city’s Citizens’ Police Review Board at a May 21 commission conference, City Attorney Thomas J. Ansbro wrote Monday in a memorandum to the board that was shared with the Miami Herald.

READ MORE: DeSantis signs bill to defang police oversight panels like the one Miami voters created

Ansbro wrote that the city will have to revise its legislation for the review board, which has been in existence for three decades. The new Florida law, Ansbro noted, does allow a police chief to establish a civilian oversight board to review the department’s policies and procedures.

“This means that the scope of the Citizen Police Review Board’s activities would have to be narrowed,” Ansbro wrote, adding it is likely an entirely new oversight board will be proposed at the May 21 conference.

District 1 Commissioner John Herbst said he’d asked the city attorney for guidance on the new law and how it would affect the city’s review board.

“It’s not entirely clear to us just yet if it can move forward in anything resembling its current form,” Herbst said. “I suspect not, based on my understanding of the legislation.”

Established in 1994, the existing board has nine members, six of whom are appointed by the commission and three that are police department employees appointed by the police chief. The board, which reviews complaints investigated by the Fort Lauderdale Police Department’s internal affairs unit, was created after Patrick Lavon Lee was shot and killed by a Fort Lauderdale police officer in 1989, leading to outrage in the Black community, according to a Sun Sentinel report.

As of December 2021, Florida had 21 citizen oversight agencies, according to a report from the LeRoy Collins Institute at Florida State University. At least one agency, North Miami’s Citizens Investigative Board, opted to shutter in the wake of HB 601. North Miami Mayor Alix Desulme said he was “saddened and disappointed” in the passing of the legislation but that he is confident in the city’s police force.

Fort Lauderdale’s Citizens’ Police Review Board has not met this year but discussed several cases last year, including one involving Fort Lauderdale Police detention officer Chase Harder, who is accused of killing his girlfriend in front of her 3-year-old daughter.

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Paul Eichner, chair of the board, told the Herald the board was advisory in nature to begin with and reviewed reports after an investigation was complete, recommending to either sustain or lessen a reprimand or suggest additional training prior to its submission to the city manager. Board appointees were not directly involved with police investigations, he said.

Eichner said the board, while not adversarial to the police department, gave communities an opportunity to address any issues they thought were improper.

“It provided a buffer and allowed for voices to be heard, and it’s unfortunate that that’s going to change,” he said.