Editorial Roundup: Florida

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

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July 1

The Miami Herald on charges being brought against police officers in Florida and holding officers accountable for their actions:

And just like that, brutal officers in South Florida are being fired and charged with crimes for mistreating the public. Imagine that.

Last week, Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle filed four battery charges against a Miami Gardens police officer who pressed his knee on the neck of a woman outside a strip club and tased her in January.

The city’s mayor, Oliver Gilbert, told the Editorial Board Tuesday he learned of the incident three weeks ago and quickly pushed for the firing of the officer.

“We took immediate action and showed accountability,” said Gilbert, who added that 15 “unprofessional” officers have been fired in recent years.

Then on Tuesday, suspended Fort Lauderdale Officer Steven Pohorence, who was captured on video shoving a kneeling woman during a Black Lives Matter demonstration on May 31, was charged with misdemeanor battery, the Broward State Attorney announced.

So why did it take so long to hold accountable officers who abuse their power? Pohorence and too many other abusive officers are never punished, never sanctioned and put right back out on the street with badges and guns.

No doubt, the national outrage and public protests against police brutality following the infamous and widely excoriated death of George Floyd after a Minneapolis has prompted those in power to listen, finally.

Miami Gardens Police Officer Jordy Yanes Martel might have been yet another brutal officer shielded by anonymity had there not been a bystander’s video of him arresting Safiya Satchell, 33, outside Tootsie’s Cabaret in January. Yanes Martel even said that he was being attacked.

Apparently, he wasn’t. Instead, the video showed Satchell being thrown to the ground, restrained by the neck and tased twice in the stomach. Satchell was pregnant. How inhumane can policing get? Clearly, George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis showed us.

CHARGES BROUGHT

In Miami-Dade, the most encouraging development was the relative speed with which Fernández Rundle acted.

“We believe a review of the video reflects that Martel allegedly was the aggressor,” Fernández Rundle said during a news conference to announce the charges: four counts of battery and two counts of official misconduct.

Fernández Rundle is up for reelection, has a credible challenger and has been challenged by Black Lives Matter protesters and others for her record on police use-of-force cases. And rightly so.

The longtime Miami-Dade state attorney has been severely criticized for a track record of not prosecuting police officers accused of brutality, including fatal shootings. Protesters have even demonstrated outside the Criminal Justice Building, where her office is located. Fernández Rundle denies being soft on cops. And state law sets a high burden of proof to charge, much less convict, police officers in fatal shootings.

Still, Fernández Rundle has a powerful bully pulpit that she could use more forcefully.

Satchell’s arrest was especially egregious — and it stemmed from a dispute over a food tab. Surely the incident could have been prevented by officers practicing deescalation.

But that’s not what happened in the arrest. Yanes Martel lied about what transpired. But thankfully, there was a bystander video, taken by Satchell’s friend, to contradict the officers’ phony police report. The video did not back up his claim. Unfortunately, there is not always a video to catch cops like Yanes Martel and Pohorence in action. What are police chiefs doing about it?

Online: https://www.miamiherald.com/

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June 30

The Gainesville Sun on requiring face coverings in Florida amid the coronavirus pandemic:

At a time when coronavirus cases are again surging, wearing a face mask should be no more controversial than wearing a shirt or shoes into a business.

Masks help prevent people who have COVID-19 from spreading the virus to others. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people wear cloth face coverings in public when around people outside of their households, especially when other social distancing measures are hard to maintain.

Unfortunately some Republican politicians have used mask-wearing as another way to divide an already polarized American public. But after a record-breaking number of coronavirus cases in Florida and other Sun Belt states over the past week, thankfully that is changing.

Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry issued a city-wide mask requirement Monday, two months ahead of Republican National Convention events that were moved there due to coronavirus-related safety measures being in place in North Carolina. Some of Curry’s fellow Florida Republicans, including Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, have urged the public to wear masks but not endorsed mandates.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has said that people need to abide by local mask-wearing requirements, but that he would not impose a statewide mask requirement because it might backfire. The mixed message from DeSantis has become a trademark of his muddled response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

With Florida shattering daily records last week as the state approaches 150,000 coronavirus cases, about twice as many as there were just two weeks ago, now is the time for a statewide mask-wearing requirement. While municipalities such as Alachua County have already passed such requirements, the virus isn’t bound by county borders.

Projections show that Florida could cut potential coronavirus deaths in half by getting most of the state’s residents to wear masks in public places. Florida would save nearly 8,000 lives by October if 95% of the population wore masks in public, according to an Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation model.

Of course, getting such widespread compliance would be difficult even with a statewide mandate and enforcement of such a requirement is difficult. But just recommending that people wear masks clearly isn’t working, so a requirement is needed to save lives as well as prevent another shutdown of businesses.

Already the DeSantis administration was forced to retreat on reopening bars, ordering last week that alcohol consumption be halted in these establishments. The move was made due to a rising number of COVID-19 cases among young people, some of whom lack symptoms.

Face coverings help prevent these individuals and others from unwittingly spreading the virus when going to grocery stores or other businesses. Masks block droplets that spread the virus when someone coughs, sneezes or talks, protecting the health of other customers as well as the employees of these businesses.

DeSantis needs to send a clear message that face coverings are an easy, effective and expected way for residents to help stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus. He should do so by issuing a statewide mask-wearing requirement.

Online: https://www.gainesville.com/

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June 28

The Florida Times-Union on arrests during protests in Jacksonville:

The First Amendment right to peacefully protest is in jeopardy in Jacksonville.

This became apparent following reporting by Andrew Pantazi of the Times-Union about recent protests that revealed:

About 50 arrests for unlawful assembly or resisting arrest were so questionable that the Office of State Attorney refused to prosecute them. Sheriff Mike Williams insisted the arrests were appropriate.

Many of these same arrested people were forced to plead guilty or pay bail rather than be released on their own recognizance. In effect, they were treated as if they were presumed guilty.

And this comes before the Republican National Convention comes here in August during the 60th anniversary of Axe Handle Saturday in which peaceful protesters were attacked by white extremists.

One of the issues involves a vague Florida statute for unlawful assembly. It refers to three or more people committing a breach of the peace or other unlawful act. This is a second-degree misdemeanor.

There is a separate statute for riots. There is a clear distinction between rioting and peaceful protests. Police should stop a riot but they should not arbitrarily shut down a peaceful protest.

As reported by Pantazi, a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of four protesters calls for the following prohibitions for the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office:

Peaceful protests should not be shut down unless there is a clear danger to public safety and after police have tried other crowd control measures.

No more arrests for failing to comply with officers unless the orders are clear, specific and give protesters a chance to comply. Several people were arrested while they were trying to leave the protest area.

No more use of chemical agents unless it is a last resort to maintain the peace, and they should not be used indiscriminately at a crowd.

Those are common-sense recommendations that should already be in force.

But these were only the first examples of injustices. The second examples came when peaceful protesters were arrested.

Cookie cutter injustice

Some people arrested for unlawful assembly encountered an unfair system that treats accused people as if they are guilty and gives people with money advantages over the poor.

For misdemeanors, there should be a preference for releasing people on their own recognizance instead of putting them in jail, especially when the pandemic gives society a reason not to pack people in confined spaces.

Jailing people before trial causes a ripple of effects on the presumably innocent people and their families. They lose income and perhaps a job while incarcerated.

Jail ought to be saved for people who are a clear threat to society or a risk of fleeing before trial.

In fact, while more people have been released from jail in recent months during the pandemic, public safety has not been harmed.

A better option than jailing people before trial is providing them with services to help address the root causes that led them to crime. Florida’s pretrial services have been slashed, reported the Florida Phoenix, while the state of New York provides pretrial services to almost 2,000 people per year. Those services include mental health, substance abuse and job assistance. Those services cost money but often cost less than jail.

In Florida, funding for rehabilitation within the state prison has been minimal.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of those arrested for unlawful assembly were required to post bond before being released. What’s worse, Judge Michael Bateh doubled or tripled the standard amount in some cases without giving a reason for it, Pantazi reported.

In a transcript of first appearance court, Bateh offered most defendants a cookie-cutter deal: a guilty plea and five days in jail or pay a bond for misdemeanor charges.

This contrasts with Bateh’s written statement to the Times-Union Editorial Board when he was running for office: “Most individuals who come before the county courts may be having their first experience with the criminal justice system. Individuals appearing before the courts want justices who are patient, who listen to both sides of the case and who will be conscientious in making their decisions and following the law that applies to their case.

“I would ensure that everyone will be treated fairly, respectfully and given an opportunity to adjudicate their case. ... Although litigants may not always agree with my ruling, they will understand how I got to my decision.”

Bateh broke his promise to the voters. He failed to explain his decisions. By offering most first-time offenders either a guilty plea or a bond payment he showed poor listening skills. That showed no respect for the individuals but instead was an impersonal form of justice.

Let’s be clear. The people we are referring to were not accused of violence. They were not rioters, they were peaceful protesters.

Major reforms are needed

This unjust bail system is not unique to Bateh, it is part of a bad tradition in Jacksonville in which releasing people on their own recognizance is given a low priority. This needs to change, which will require great effort given the longtime local precedent.

The citizens should expect that the criminal justice system will consider individuals accused of crimes on an individual basis. The system should be able to differentiate between those who are rioting from those who are expressing their First Amendment right to peacefully protest.

The sheriff, state attorney, public defender and chief judge need to join forces and give accused people their proper rights to be freed on their recognizance when justified.

In contrast, in the recent case of a person accused of ramming a police car, a high bond is justified.

But in a case of a first-time misdemeanor offender who is no flight risk, then being released without paying bail is entirely justified.

Reforms to the system should be obvious but history shows that the inertia of a precedent, even a bad one, can be a powerful barrier against reform.

Jacksonville has a progressive group of leaders. For instance, they have aggressively increased the use of civil citations for juveniles through a collaborative approach.

If no action is taken, then it would be appropriate for City Council to hold hearings and press for reforms.

It’s time for changes. Our local criminal justice leaders are capable of making them.

Online: https://www.jacksonville.com/