Lawmakers Push For Police Body Cams, Autism Training, Deaf Awareness

Feb 17, 2016

Caught on cell phone videos and magnified by social media, law enforcement incidents dominate the news. Some Florida lawmakers are working on a host of measures to rebuild the relationship between police and the public.

Credit Credit Juan Alvarez/ flickr / Credit Juan Alvarez/ flickr / https://www.flickr.com/photos/juanferralvarez/

Across the country, there can be violent, sometimes fatal interactions between police and the public. Through cell phone videos and dash cam footage, sometimes we get a glimpse of these incidents. Activists say these cameras can shape behavior and save lives. Some Florida jurisdictions are quick to invest in body cams, but haven’t established guidelines on how to use them, and where to store the camera footage. Fort Lauderdale Senator Chris Smith wants to change that.

"If you’re gonna have body cameras on officers, you should come up with maintenance and storage procedures. If officers are gonna where cameras, you need to have a procedure of who’s actually gonna wear the cameras," he said.

But critics say body cams are not a magic wand. Shifting behavior requires education and training as well. Another bill sponsored by Senator Smith could help officers interact with people on the autism spectrum. Here’s Smith again.

“For the training that officers have to go through every year, part of that training will now include detecting persons with autism and dealing with persons with autism,” he said.

Some state lawmakers want to build on autism awareness, but they’re taking it a step further. When people on the autism spectrum are being interviewed by law enforcement, a psychologist or other professional should be there to help. That’s according to Senator Jeremy Ring of Margate and Representative Bill Hager of Boca Raton. Hager says the nature of autism can make it difficult for people to communicate, especially in stressful situations.

“And that’s driven by the characteristics of autism itself. And those characteristics known to everyone is the room are those of repetitive behavior, those of difficulty with verbal communications, those of difficulty with nonverbal communication,” he said.

Under the bill, officers should make every attempt to include a professional in the interview. But if they don’t, it won’t be held against them. The officers can’t be sued, and the testimony can still be used in a court of law. But lawmakers in both chambers say, if there are no consequences, what’s the point? Senator Rob Bradley of Orange Park is one of those dissenters.

“I don’t want this to be used a sword to avoid statements being put into evidence that imply guilt or state guilt on the part of someone making those statements, but then they get suppressed by virtue of this statute or it even colors the judge’s view of whether they should be suppressed or not,” he said.

Despite concerns, both bills continue to move forward.

Other lawmakers want to make driving while deaf safer. Getting pulled over can be stressful for anyone. But for the deaf and hard of hearing, miscommunication with police is a real concern. Representative Vic Torres of Orlando wants to add a symbol on driver’s licenses to indicate if the person is deaf or hard of hearing. June McMahon represents the Florida Association of the Deaf. Here she is speaking through an interpreter.

“If you look on the news there are so many problems dealing with the police, even with people who aren’t deaf. So you can imagine if you add the communication issue on top of that, it can escalate to something more serious,” she said.

The bill has one more committee stop Thursday, before heading to the House floor. But the Senate version has not had a single hearing.