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Tampa citizens gather to present their version of a police civilian review board

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Early next month, Tampa Police Chief Eric Ward will present to the Tampa City Council the results of his research about a model for a civilian review board to oversee Tampa Police operations.

City Attorney Julia Mandell will also brief the council about her own research into the city’s charter to determine who has the authority — the mayor or the council — to create such a board.

Tampa is actually in the minority of big cities in the United States in not having an independent board of citizens that acts in an oversight role to monitor police procedures and policies. A critical mass has now formed toward creating such a board in Tampa, but there are tremendous concerns among advocacy organizations and members of the community about how much power it will ultimately have — or not have.

On Monday night in a second-floor office usually occupied by the Service Employees International Union 1199 (SEIU) in the Westshore district, nearly 50 people crowded into a room to talk about what they — the citizens of the city — would like to see in a civilian review board.

“We’re talking about oversight, transparency and accountability,” said Laila Abdelaziz with the Tampa office of the Council on American Islamic Relations. “What kind of measures of accountability do we want the police department to have?”

It was the group’s second meeting, with a third scheduled for next week. Their goal is to assemble all of the ideas offered in these meetings and come up with their own plan for a civilian review board that they can hand off to City Council Chair Frank Reddick in advance of that September 3 meeting, which is only two weeks away.

There were a number of questions asked by the activists throughout the 90-minute meeting, which consisted of activists from advocacy groups who have been out in front in demanding more accountability on the part of the Tampa Police Department this year, as well as younger activists who have participated in demonstrations against police brutality over the past year — some of them part of a Blackout Tampa event that took place on Saturday.

It’s been a traumatic year in terms of documented evidence of lethal police actions toward people of color around the nation, and while such events haven’t occurred in Tampa (yet), activists are intent on creating a strong system of accountability.

Longtime Tampa activist Connie Burton was one of a few members at Monday’s meeting who recalls the city’s previous incarnation of a civilian review board, which she joked was filled with appointees who were between “70 and 100” years old. She said most of them came from the African-American church and were all pro-mayor. “It has to be community driven,” she insisted. “The people most affected by (law enforcement) should be able to organize in a way to submit their nominees.”

“It’s our job to relay to the City Council that there is serious dismay with police officers,” said Bob Gibson with the SEIU. “People are complaining and not hearing back from their complaints.”

In researching the more than 100 models that exist around the country currently, Abdelaziz acknowledged that every civilian review board is different, so at this stage, Tampa should look at the best model for the city’s needs, not try to necessarily attempt to duplicate what civilian review boards are like in places like Miami, St. Petersburg or Los Angeles.

Russell Meyer, executive director of the Florida Council of Churches, said that Chief Ward informed him in a meeting that a lot of the TPD’s data isn’t digitally preserved. “I think this CRB should have direct access under supervision to police data.”

The St. Petersburg model only allows the mayor to name members of the panel. Tampa City Council Chair Frank Reddick has said its important for the council to have a say-so, which could lead to tensions depending on what City Attorney Mandell determines.

One member of the group said that such a review board should reflect those who are most affected by law enforcement, leading some to question — how do you quantify that?  Another audience member said that meant looking at statistics showing where most arrests take place — such as 22nd and Lake in East Tampa vs. Westchase.

Costs are another issue that will have to be determined. Some civilian review boards have multimillion-dollar budgets. Others, not so much.

Later in the discussion, members got caught up in discussing how much they want in a board that can realistically be approved, and whether to ask for more to increase their negotiating leverage.

Mayor Bob Buckhorn told the Tampa Bay Times’ Rick Danielson last week that the momentum for such a board isn’t being dictated per se by the facts on the ground in Tampa. “I think you’re seeing these because of what’s going on around the country, not necessarily here in Tampa,” he said.

The U.S. Department of Justice has been reviewing the TPD at the city’s invitation after a published report earlier this year found that nearly 80 percent of all bike citations were given to black people living in predominantly black neighborhoods. A story published today by the Tampa Bay Times finds that such citations in the black community have dramatically fallen off this summer, in the wake of the story.

The Justice Department’s Office of Community-Oriented Policing Services review is expected to be completed by the end of the year. The fact that it’s the COPS program, and not the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, has disappointed groups like the ACLU, something that the group’s Joyce Hamilton Henry mentioned on Monday night.

“They have the capacity to do deeper research, provide tangible recommendations and hold the city accountable,” she said.

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Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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