Florida’s Most Powerful Pro-Police Lobbying Group Is An Anti-Reform Force

The Florida Sheriffs Association gains a third of its multimillion-dollar budget by selling big-ticket items like trucks and mobile command centers to local sheriff’s departments and other government agencies.

Florida’s Most Powerful Pro-Police Lobbying Group Is An Anti-Reform Force

The Florida Sheriffs Association gains a third of its multimillion-dollar budget by selling big-ticket items like trucks and mobile command centers to local sheriff’s departments and other government agencies.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis proposed legislation last month that would allow cops to charge people with felonies for appearing at a “violent” protest and allow anyone who “organizes” a “violent or disorderly assembly” to be charged under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. 

The plan, presented at a press conference in the Lakeland area, would also give legal cover to drivers who kill or injure people with their vehicles if they were “fleeing for safety from a mob.” In 2017, during the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, a driver killed a protester and was convicted of first-degree murder and other charges. In June, a man in Portland, Oregon, was charged with reckless driving and three felony hit-and-run counts after he was filmed driving into a crowd of racial-justice activists. Three people were injured, and two of the three were transported to the hospital.  Under DeSantis’s proposal, if such crimes occur in Florida, those people would be protected.

“We’ve seen disorder and tumult in many cities across the country,” DeSantis said of the proposed Combating Violence, Disorder and Looting and Law Enforcement Protection Act. 

Several lawmakers were standing behind the governor at the Sept. 21 press conference—and so was Gilchrist County Sheriff Bobby Schultz. In July, Schultz  was named the new president of the Florida Sheriffs Association (FSA), arguably the most powerful anti-criminal justice reform and pro-police lobbying group in America’s fourth most-populous state.

“They are, without question, the most powerful lobby group that consistently opposes sentencing reform in Tallahassee and consistently lobbies for new felonies, new sentencing enhancements, new mandatory minimums, and opposes anything that might roll that back the war on drugs,” Greg Newburn, the Florida state policy director for FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Minimums), told The Appeal.

Although the FSA has yet to take a concrete stance on DeSantis’s package of bills—a spokesperson later told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel’s Steve Bousquet that the group “conceptually support[s] his proposals”—Schultz’s presence at the press conference is a reminder that DeSantis’s perhaps unconstitutional legislation could be in enacted during the statehouse’s next legislative session in 2021. Each year, the FSA employs a battalion of lobbyists to ensure that prison sentences remain long, mandatory-minimum drug laws stay on the books, and police departments can buy up all the equipment they’d like.

The FSA has long been a force. It was founded in 1893, and its ranks included Napoleon Bonaparte Broward (the eponym of Broward County), who was Duval County sheriff at the time and eventually became Florida’s governor. But few, if any, accounts explain where the FSA gets so much money to fund its army of lobbyists each year: the sale of equipment to the state’s sheriff’s departments.

“We don’t take tax dollars to lobby against sheriffs,” Newburn said. “But they take tax dollars to lobby against us.”

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The FSA has quietly become one of the most well-funded trade groups in Tallahassee. According to its 2017 IRS Form 990s (financial statements that nonprofits must file annually with the federal government), the FSA pulled in more than $11 million in total revenue and listed nearly $21 million in net assets. Its assets dwarfed those reported that same year by the Florida Chamber of Commerce (an estimated $8 million) and Associated Industries of Florida (an estimated $6 million), two of the state’s most well-known big-business lobbying groups. 

According to the FSA’s most recent annual statement online, the organization reported that 27 percent of its annual revenues in the 2018 fiscal year came from membership fees.

But the FSA’s membership fees are just its second-largest source of revenue. An even larger portion—32 percent—came that year from what the organization calls its “cooperative purchasing program”—a service in which it conducts competitive bids for products and services and then allows government agencies to piggy-back off those contracts. The FSA says this process helps save government agencies both time and money, as they then need to field fewer competitive bids.

The FSA charges a 0.0075 percent markup on any item sold using its service. That may sound insignificant, but if a police department buys a new fleet of cruisers or ATVs  (both available for purchase through the program), the markup adds up quickly. Additionally, any government agency can buy products from the program, not just cops. Other items for sale include: a police mobile-command center for $217,293, a police-rated Chevrolet Tahoe (one option is just under $34,000), a boat made for aquatic weed-whacking (including one for $50,000), a 38-ton operating-weight hydraulic excavator (one model runs $311,724), and a 40-ton landfill compactor (one of the choices is $658,717). 

“Bidders are to include the administrative fee of three quarters of one percent (0.0075) in all bid prices,” according to the purchasing program’s contract terms and conditions. It adds: “The fee should never be listed as a separate line item on any purchase order.”

Critics note that the funding structure creates an incentive for cops to buy expensive items like trucks, since the FSA fee funnels cash directly into pro-police lobbying. The FSA says on its website that since starting the purchasing program in 1993, it has sold 55,000 vehicles to government agencies.

FSA employees did not respond to requests from The Appeal to discuss the organization’s program. But critics on the left and right told The Appeal that the FSA wields its huge, taxpayer-funded budget to lobby against the public’s interests.

“Ultimately, these are taxpayer dollars invested against the public interest to maintain draconian, racist sentencing laws and mass incarceration in Florida—and often your local Sheriffs and Chiefs are giving communities reform-minded lip service at home, while supporting the status quo in the state legislature,” Ida Eskamani, a community lobbyist who represents the Florida Immigrant Coalition, New Florida Majority, and Organize Florida activist groups in Tallahassee, said in an email to The Appeal.

Newburn’s group, FAMM, tends to align more with libertarian-leaning conservatives than Democrats. But he told The Appeal that when he tried to help pass bills that would roll back the war on drugs or shorten long prison sentences in Florida, he hit a wall when the FSA started lobbying against him.

He noted, for example, that the agency consistently lobbies to maintain Florida’s “85 percent rule,” a “truth in sentencing” law that requires people sentenced to prison in the state to serve at least 85 percent of their terms before becoming eligible for release.  

“I think if you sat them down and asked why they do this, they’ll just say, ‘Well, we think it works,’” Newburn said. “But if you asked why they think it works, they will sit there dumbfounded. And if you’re waiting for them to give you an answer on that—grab a Snickers, because you’re going to be there for a while.”

In January, the FSA—then under Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri—used its huge budget to create an institute that pushes pro-police scholarship.  That month, the Florida Sheriffs Research Institute published a paper arguing that the state’s 85 percent rule helped reduce crime rates in Florida.

“What our first report finds is that the current research tells us that the 85 percent time-served law has been associated with significant reductions in the likelihood of recidivism,” Gualtieri said in a press release. “Truth in Sentencing works, and it is making our communities safer with less crime and fewer victims.”

Newburn disagreed. 

“It was a dreadful paper,” he said. “It was really bad. But to their credit, at least they made an effort to make a coherent argument.”

Florida’s legislature meets to pass bills for just 60 days beginning every March. In a March 20, 2019, House Civil Justice Committee meeting, Gualtieri stood at a lectern on the FSA’s behalf and warned lawmakers that if local jails didn’t cooperate with ICE, it could lead to an incident similar to a 2017 case in Portland, Oregon, where an undocumented man released from jail, in Gualtieri’s words, “got out and raped a 65-year-old woman.”

During the 2020 legislative session, the FSA opposed a bill from Republican state Senator Rob Bradley that would have imposed limits on maximum sentences for those convicted of certain drug offenses. Even Americans for Prosperity, the lobbying group founded by brothers Charles and David Koch, supported Bradley’s bill. But after the FSA announced its opposition, the bill failed.

“There are very few things in the legislature we find bipartisan support behind,” Eskamani said, “but on criminal justice, Democrats and Republicans are finding common ground. Unfortunately, it’s law enforcement and prosecutors calling the shots.” 

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