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As DeSantis targets cities that 'defund' police, no cuts planned for Tampa, St. Pete departments

The St. Petersburg police department’s budget is actually increasing, says a spokesperson, due to the addition of officer-worn body cameras.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Gov. Ron DeSantis says any municipality that tries to ‘defund’ their police would lose state funding under a new legislative proposal announced Monday.

The vague proposal, part of the “Combating Violence, Disorder and Looting and Law Enforcement Protection Act,” says any municipality that “slashes” its law enforcement agency budget would be prohibited from receiving grants and state funding.

“If you defund the police, then the state will defund any grant or aid coming to you,” DeSantis said during a news conference at the Polk County Sheriff’s Office in Winter Haven on Monday.

The governor later said it would apply to any situation where a law enforcement agency is “disproportionately” singled out for budget cuts.

In St. Petersburg, plans remain in place to divert $3 million dollars from hiring new officers to instead hiring unarmed social workers to handle non-violent calls, a police department spokesperson said.

RELATED: Change is coming to the St. Petersburg Police Department

In July, the department announced it would create a new unit called “CAL” for Community Assistance Liaison that would be made up of 18-20 members that specialize in mental health.

“If passed, the bill shouldn’t affect St. Pete PD because the Community Assistance Liaison program doesn’t defund the police department,” said St. Petersburg police spokesperson Yolanda Fernandez. “It’s simply a shifting of funds.”

Asked specifically about the SPPD proposal, a spokesperson for the governor said in an email, “reallocating or shifting significant funds that reduces the safety of the men and women in law enforcement that put their lives on the line every day to protect their fellow Floridians amounts to defunding.”

DeSantis’ office, however, noted this is proposed legislation, and each component will be more clearly defined as the bill moves through the legislative process.

Regardless, Fernandez said the department’s budget is actually increasing to pay for new officer-worn body cameras.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman’s spokesperson Ben Kirby echoed Fernandez and added, “the mayor isn't concerned with Trumpian threats and gimmicks.”

In Tampa, Mayor Jane Castor has been adamant she has no interest in making cuts to the city’s police department.

Castor, the city’s former police chief, said taking uniformed officers off the streets would have negative impacts on neighborhoods.

“We will focus on investing, not divesting,” Castor said in August when presenting her proposed budget. She did not comment Monday on the governor’s proposal.

RELATED: Gov. DeSantis: Local governments that 'defund' law enforcement could lose state funding

Other aspects of the proposed legislation would include harsher penalties for those who participate and are arrested in "violent, disorderly" assemblies. Anyone arrested could face charges listed as a third-degree felony and could be denied bail until their first court appearance.

In a one-page document outlining the proposed bill, it would be a third-degree felony "when seven or more persons are involved in an assembly and cause damage to property or injury to other persons." It, too, would be a felony to obstruct traffic during an "unpermitted protest," and a driver trying to get out "for safety from a mob" would not be held liable for injury or death.

Critics argue the measure would effectively criminalize protesters.

“Regardless of people's political beliefs or stances we should always be concerned when the government tries to entrench on people's right to protest,” said Jackie Azis, staff attorney with ACLU Florida.

“Right now the movement is about black lives mattering… if next year when another group, such as the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street or another organization wants to protest, now their rights are infringed as well.”

Florida Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Nikki Fried called DeSantis' announcement a "political stunt" ahead of the election when there are more pressing issues at hand.

“This bill is unconstitutional, authoritarian, and serves as a distraction from the serious issues Florida is facing," Fried said. "It will only move us backwards in the pursuit of social justice."

DeSantis said the bill will be introduced in the next legislative session, which begins in March 2021.

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