Op-Ed: The Public Must Know Why a Police Chief is Fired

Prior to serving the people of District 59 as their State Representative, I served over four years as Pinellas County’s Assistant State Attorney. As a prosecutor, I worked diligently to keep my community safe and ensure Florida remains a place for all Americans to live and grow freely.

Strong, effective local law enforcement was and still is at the heart of keeping our communities safe, and law enforcement agencies can only accomplish that mission with strong, effective leadership. Rightfully, we expect our law enforcement leaders to abide by the highest ethical standards, and we should expect those who supervise them to do the same.

Unfortunately, in a disturbing trend, the men and women who lead law enforcement agencies across Florida are increasingly approached by supervisors – some elected, some not – who threaten their employment for unethical, immoral, and even illegal reasons.

You see, in Florida, while rank and file officers are protected by a Bill of Rights, every police chief is an “at will” employee and can be fired for any reason, or no reason at all. This can and often does happen in the dark, outside the public’s view.

From telling a chief or other department employee to run someone’s license plate, to suggesting someone should or shouldn’t be arrested, allowing local leaders to leverage a chief’s livelihood creates situations that are ripe for corruption.

That’s not the transparent and accountable government, answerable to the public, that we should expect in Florida, and that’s not something I’m willing to tolerate.

That’s why I’ve filed House Bill 935, so that if a local jurisdiction intends to fire its chief law enforcement executive, they must also give the community public notice, put the reasons for termination in writing, and give the community and the chief, if he or she so chooses, the opportunity to be heard in a public hearing.

Some voices have suggested that legislation like this would make it impossible to fire a police chief. Don’t believe it. That’s fake news. Chiefs are now and will continue to be “at will” employees.

But this bill will give police chiefs some due process before they can be terminated. In fact, I can’t think of any legitimate reason why local leaders would oppose this common-sense legislation.

Ultimately, police chiefs are accountable to the communities they serve. When a chief’s employment is in question, the reasons should be a matter of public record, and should be clearly communicated in a public hearing where community members have an opportunity to be heard.

Governor DeSantis is working overtime to support our law enforcement. Let’s show some respect for those who lead our police departments, and at least have a public conversation before we give them the pink slip.