How you can help improve policing practices in Central Florida

Departments rely on civic engagement, community feedback

Calls for change after police shootings and other violent encounters have been loud and clear. While the “why” may seem obvious to many, the “how” is oftentimes much harder to decipher, especially for those who aren’t men and women in blue. In Central Florida, there are organizations and resources meant to help bridge that gap and help the everyday citizen become more involved when it comes to reform within law enforcement agencies.

ORLANDO, Fla. – Calls for change after police shootings and other violent encounters have been loud and clear.

While the “why” may seem obvious to many, the “how” is oftentimes much harder to decipher, especially for those who aren’t men and women in blue.

In Central Florida, there are organizations and resources meant to help bridge that gap and help the everyday citizen become more involved when it comes to reform within law enforcement agencies.

Below are some tips to help you get started. Just remember that your safety always comes first so only do what’s comfortable.

1. Report bad behavior when you see it

Higher ups within an agency can’t correct potentially problematic actions from officers if they aren’t aware of it. If you’re a witness to or victim of excessive force or other behavior that seems inappropriate, you can file a complaint.

Keep in mind that officers can’t prohibit you from filming as long as it doesn’t interfere with their work so record a video of the infraction if you’re able to do so without putting yourself in harm’s way.

At the Marion County Sheriff’s Office, the process to file a complaint is simple and can be done entirely online by using this link.

The form asks for the date and time of the incident, the names of the employees involved and a description of what exactly transpired.

The Daytona Beach Police Department promises to investigate all citizen complaints thoroughly. Those can be given in person at the station on Valor Boulevard, over the phone at 386-671-5100 or through mail.

Good behavior should also be acknowledged so agencies know the positive impact their officers can have and how members of the community react to being treated with kindness, respect and civility.

Make sure to include specifics about the encounter and how it made you feel to experience a favorable outcome in what may have been an unpleasant situation. If departments know who their best officers are, they can reward their efforts and make sure their colleagues know their methods should be emulated.

The Flagler County Sheriff’s Office accepts commendations through the same online form available for complaints and other comments.

2. Join a citizens’ review board

Citizens’ review boards generally serve as an independent third party that examines use of force incidents and complaints lodged against the police department.

The Orlando Police Department’s citizens’ review board has nine members and meets once per month to discuss any pertinent issues.

These boards do have their limitations, though. Most can’t enact any sort of disciplinary action and they can’t open any independent investigations so their suggestions are just that — suggestions.

On the first Wednesday of every month, nine volunteers of all different ages, races and backgrounds come together to review the actions of Orlando police officers through the city’s Citizen Police Review Board.

On top of that, not every law enforcement agency has a review board but that doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities to provide feedback.

The city of Winter Springs, for example, has a section of its website with a survey about safety, security, the police department’s treatment of citizens and its policies.

During the past year, several government agencies have hosted town hall-type events during which residents are invited to ask questions and provide their insight.

News 6 has also hosted these events and will continue to do so.

3. Donate your time or money

There are countless organizations that have been fighting for police reform for years and need more support to have a chance at real change.

Figure out what changes you’d like to see — maybe more mental health resources, new training methodologies or a better screening process for recruits — and find organizations that not only align with those ideals but are actively working to make those solutions possible.

Once you’ve figured out those goals, do some research to find organizations in your area that meet that standard and make plans to attend a meeting or event. If you fall in love with a group that’s not local, contact the leading members and see if there’s another way you can contribute to the cause or even start a branch in your neighborhood.

Deciding where or even whether to donate your time or money is a personal decision. To help with the process, we gathered a list of some organizations to consider:

Meaggan Thomas from the Tampa Bay Activist Network noted organizations that provide community support are also in need of volunteers and resources.

She said if members of the community have access to food, affordable housing and physical and mental health care, they might be less likely to commit crimes.

“When people are living in scarcity, they get to a certain point where they have no other choice but to, you know, steal. In other cases it’s mental health or they don’t have the resources to get their mental health on track and you know that has consequences,” she said.

Thomas said contributing to food banks and the like can help with that.

“We have to cultivate every individual’s life in a way that, you know, makes them want to contribute to the world in a positive way. You know, all this crime is happening because people don’t have the resources that they need in order to live a flourishing life. And so once we get that down pat and we start building community and mutual aid networks and we’re there for each other, and we provide what the other lacks, I think that’s what an ideal world would be,” she said.

Starting that process is as easy as checking in with those around you.

“Talk to your neighbors, ask them if they need anything, because that’s where it starts is in the community,” Thomas said.

4. Know what to do and what not to do when interacting with police

Daytona Beach Police Chief Jakari Young said citizens should be aware of the laws and if they feel their rights are being violated, they can ask questions.

“If you know the laws, I have no issue with anyone standing up for their rights but here’s what we always tell people: On the side of the road, on the sidewalk, that is not the time to hold court,” Young said.

He said officers need to be transparent about why they’re stopping someone so the expectations are clear and the situation doesn’t escalate.

“The onus is largely on us as law enforcement to engage and explain to people why we are confronting them, why we are encountering them and what it is we need from them. We need you to do X, Y and Z, here’s why I’m asking you to do X, Y and Z. Most logical people — it’s all in our approach — if we explain to them what we’re asking, why we’re asking it and what we expect from them, most times a logical person or reasonable person will just comply, even if they may not 100% agree,” Young said.

For those who don’t agree, he suggested filing a complaint.

Erin Keith, a staff attorney at the Detroit Justice Center, provided insight on what to do during a traffic stop, which is one of the more common ways residents interact with officers.

An attorney from the Detroit Justice Center explains what you should and shouldn’t do during a traffic stop and other police encounters.

“So if you’ve been pulled over, of course, you want to be compliant with the officer, keep your hands where they are visible. Make sure that you are able to answer the officer’s questions. Ultimately, you just want to remain as calm as you can and just try to keep your wits about you,” Keith said.

She also suggested that “you should know your rights, not show your rights” in any situation.

“What that basically means is if an officer is violating your rights, and you’re aware of this, it’s great to make a mental note. You can even say out loud, like, ‘I do not consent to a search,’ because you know that the officer has no grounds to search you. What you shouldn’t do is attempt to fight back to prevent the illegal search,” Keith said.

Instead, make a note to tell your attorney so body camera footage can be requested and the decision can be made whether to dismiss the case based on the violation.

In other encounters, she said you can ask the officer “Am I free to leave?” or if it seems as though an investigation may be starting, “Am I being arrested and if so, for what?”

“A lot of times, that’s just helpful to know, because everything doesn’t always look like law and order. It’s not always the officer saying, you know, ‘I’m under arrest, you’re under arrest,’ like some big pronouncement. So it’s good to confirm what’s happening,” Keith explained.

Keep in mind, too, that you don’t have to consent to a search and you have the right to remain silent, something you should express more than once if necessary.

Keith recommended the acronym FADES to help remember those tips.

F: Am I free to leave?

A: Am I being arrested?

D: Do not consent to a search.

ES: Express silence.

On top of that, the next thing is to ask for a lawyer.

“So the good thing to know is that once you asked for a lawyer, all questioning must cease. If they continue asking you questions like, ‘You sure you want a lawyer? I can’t help you after you get a lawyer,’ police can lie to you, but you cannot lie to the police without facing severe penalty. So it’s extremely important that once you say, ‘I want a lawyer now,’ you don’t answer any more questions,” Keith said.

5. Vote and stay civic minded

Remember that sheriffs are elected positions, meaning you have the power to decide who’s in power every four years.

Ahead of these crucial races, make sure you’re as informed as possible by reading up on each candidate’s platform, knowing their track record and watching debates so you know how each one compares.

These candidates participate in several rallies and events leading up to Election Day so if possible, consider attending a few for each contender to see what they’re offering citizens.

Even when it’s not an election year, changes still take place.

From the streets in Central Florida last summer to the House Floor in Tallahassee this spring, calls for police reform in Florida are leading to some change at the state level.

During the 2021 legislative session, 18 police reform bills were filed in Florida. Among one of the most notable is the Law Enforcement and Corrections Officers Best Practices Act, or HB 7051, which has since been signed into law.

Some key points in the bill include:

  • Prohibiting an officer who has been fired or under investigation for use of force from getting hired at another agency.
  • Requiring law enforcement agencies to collect data to track and report use of force incidents.
  • Limiting the use of chokeholds.
  • Prohibiting officers from arresting children under the age of 7.

The bill garnered support from the Florida Sheriff’s Association and Orange County Sheriff John Mina.

Citizens can have their voices heard when it comes to measures of this kind by writing to their elected officials.

“If your local leaders know that you’re watching them, they’re more likely to represent you if you tell them what you need, they’ll have that in their mind and hopefully make the right choice that reflects what you and your community needs,” Thomas said.

Continuing the conversation and creating specialized units are just some of the solutions that could help improve policing practices.