About 70 Bartow residents joined City Commissioner Leo Longworth and Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd recently in a town forum to learn what new law enforcement legislation means.
Some 40 residents opted to tune in virtually and the remaining 30 crowded the city Commission Chamber to hear an in-depth explanation of the “anti-riot” bill and a companion “police reform bill.” Only the anti-riot bill has been formally passed and according to Longworth, the other is expected to be signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
According to both Judd and Longworth, the anti-riot bill increases penalties for those involved in one; raising some to felony level and still protects the rights of those interested in peaceful protests.
“There is nothing more important than the right to protest against what is perceived to be wrong, or for any cause,” said Judd, “but violence hijacks the message. We will never stop diminish or restrain a peaceful protest and I'll protest with you—we'll help facilitate that to ensure that outsiders don't take away your message.”
Judd also explained that his department would also help protesters with obtaining a permit and provide security for your protest.
“But what we saw in Portland wasn't a protest, it was anarchy – we saw anarchists, robbers and criminals burn businesses to the ground and loot others. It was government telling police to stand down. No one can tell me to stand down, not the city, not the county. We will not stand down.”
Moderator Dr. Kenneth Stephens asked Judd what preparations had his department undertaken to enforce the new law which went into effect in April.
“We will do all we can to help anyone with a peaceful protest,” said the veteran sheriff. “But if you know someone is trying to steal your thunder and hijack your message, you have to point them out to us so we can remove them. Let us help you so you can be heard.”
Roger Martin, of Auburndale, asked Judd what should one do if their vehicle is surrounded by a mob? “You can legally drive your vehicle to safety if you or the car is threatened,” Judd explained. “You can accelerate and get out of there.”
Also on topic for the forum was House Bill 751, which is, as yet, unsigned by the governor, and is called the “police reform bill.”
According to Judd, the bill simply enhances existing policies in place in most of the state's law enforcement agencies.
“This calls for de-escalation of volatile situations using the least force possible to minimize risk to those involved,” he explained. “And, if someone is injured, to immediately respond with medical assistance.”
It also outlaws choke holds, he added.
“Most of the agencies in this county have outlawed the choke hold anyway, so that's nothing new to us.” He also said his department had more than 1,500 policies in place that outlines what his deputies can and cannot do.
The bill also mandates that police agencies report quarterly on allegations of abuse which will, if deemed appropriate, be investigated by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
“Anything we do is checked, double-checked and then triple checked to see it meets the policies we've had in place for years,” the sheriff said.
One issue Judd was adamant about was the use of body cameras.
“We're evaluating this, but, to me, body cams violate privacy laws,” he said. “Imagine if I or one of my deputies had to come to your door in the middle of the night to tell you that a loved one was killed in a car wreck. There you are in your night clothes and it's about to be the worst night of your lives. Would you want that filmed? Would you want that scene of your horrific grief to be available? I don't think so. I think cameras would drive a wedge between us (lawmen) and the communities we're trying to serve. You can't take community trust away by recording it. And I won't take your right to privacy from you.”