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Activists in Tampa want to put police review board issue on the ballot

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

A coalition of activists groups in Tampa announced on Wednesday that they’re unsatisfied with the citizens review board to review police actions that was created late last year, and they intend to get the issue on the city ballot this fall to make it stronger.

Tampa for Justice, the group formed last year that led the charge for the city to create such an agency, held a news conference at the headquarters of the Hillsborough County branch of the NAACP on Wednesday, where they announced the beginning of a petition drive that they would lead to the creation of a police citizens review board with its own staff, budget and subpeona powers, all nonstarters with the mayor and City Attorney Julia Mandell last year when the issue came to the fore.

Ultimately, Mayor Bob Buckhorn and the City Council came to an agreement late last year on creating a citizens review board, and the newly formed group recently held its first meeting. But the activists say it’s scope is too limited to have any significance.

“The members of the civilian review board are respected and well meaning, but the board itself is run by the police department, and the police handpick closed cases for review,” said the Reverend Russell Meyer, one of the co-chairs of Tampa for Justice. “The mayor’s board cannot receive citizens complaints, or investigate them.”

The drive to create such a board started last April, after the Tampa Bay Times reported that the Tampa Police Department had disproportionately ticketed black bicyclists in 2012-2014. Specifically, the story said that the TPD had written  2,504 bike tickets — more than Jacksonville, Miami, St. Petersburg and Orlando combined, and nearly 80 percent of those cited were black.

Jane Castor, the chief of police at the time the story broke, disputed the insinuation that the TPD had acted in a racist fashion, and Mayor Buckhorn initially resisted calls for a citizens review board to be created. He then signed an executive order creating one, igniting a fight with the City Council, who said that he had usurped their powers. Another power struggle ensued over who had the right to name the members of that board.

After the story broke last year, however, bike citations went down dramatically, as new chief Eric Ward began giving officers more discretion in issuing such citations. But City Council Chairman Frank Reddick said on Wednesday that harassment of black cyclists still persists.

“People are still being stopped,” he said at the news conference, referring to an incident from earlier this week when he said he saw four officers stopping a bicycle rider in East Tampa. “Why did it take four officers to surround one person on a bike?” he asked.

“The mayor has called the NAACP and other organizations ‘fringe groups,'” said Hillsborough County NAACP head Bennie Smalls, referring to his reaction to the activists who crashed council meetings for weeks seeking a review board with subpoena power. “We totally think that’s a lack of respect . That was just a slap in our face.”

Smalls added the mayor has avoided any attempts to meet with the venerable civil rights organization.

After the Times story broke last spring, the TPD and the mayor contacted the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) to look into the practices of the TPD. Last July, that same group held a town-hall style meeting in Ybor City to discuss issues regarding the TPD.

Though a report regarding the TPD’s actions was supposed to be produced by the end of the year, it still hasn’t been released.

Smalls says that he’s been invited by the Office of Civil Rights in Washington to discuss Tampa’s issues regarding the police, and he will do so this Friday.

Tampa voters can propose ordinances to the City Council or can force the council to reconsider any adopted ordinance by getting 21,115 signatures. The petition has to be drawn up according to guidelines established in state law.

Once that happens, the council will consider the proposal outlined in the petition. If the ordinance isn’t enacted, then voters will consider the ordinance at a city election.

The ballot’s summary language reads as follows:

Shall the city council, by ordinance, create and establish a Civilian Investigative Panel, composed of civilian members nominated by the public and appointed by city council, to investigate complaints, individual incidents, and broader issues concerning the Tampa Police Department; to review Tampa Police Department policies and procedures; staffed by professional personnel; operated on an annual approved budget; and authorized to issue subpoenas?

Last year, City Attorney Julia Mandell maintained that an agency with power to issue subpoenas for a review board could not happen without a change to the city charter.

Reverend Meyer said said that a poll was conducted by St. Leo University last year in testing the waters as to whether such a measure could pass in Tampa. He said the reactions were quite different in suburban areas than in the downtown core. “Our real challenge is helping communities understand the real experience on the street,” he said, adding that Tampa for Justice was confident that when people are informed about more about those experience, they’ll be supportive of the measure.

“They are entitled to do that as part of the democratic process but I doubt the vast majority of people in this community will support it, ” said Mayor Buckhorn.

“I don’t personally happen to think it’s needed, heck, we put the former president of the NAACP” — Dr. Carolyn Hepburn-Collins — “on the board as well as a number of other community members who I think represent the diversity of this community. It’s a solid board.”

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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