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Justice Dept. says Tampa Police Dept.’s citation of black cyclists wasn’t discriminatory, but also wasn’t effective in stopping crime

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(Updated) The Tampa Police Department’s policy of stopping and citing black bicyclists was not discriminatory, concluded a report issued Tuesday by the Justice Department.

“The bottom-line appears to be that the TPD ‘burdened’ Black bicyclists by disproportionately stopping them in the name of ‘benefiting’ Black communities by increasing their public safety,” the report says. “Yet, our analyses indicate that the TPD’s bicycle enforcement did not produce a community benefit in terms of bicycle safety, bicycle theft, or crime generally but did burden individual bicyclists, particularly Black bicyclists in high crime areas of Tampa.”

However, that’s not to say that the report found that the TPD’s tactics were effective.

The 82-page report, by the Dept. of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), was distributed to the media at a news conference held at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in downtown Tampa. Its release comes slightly over a year after the TPD’s disproportionate rates toward citing black bicyclists for infractions was made public in an expose by Tampa Bay Times reporters Alexandra Zayas and Kameel Stanley. That story reported that the TPD had written more bike tickets from 2012-2014 than the police departments of the cities of St. Petersburg, Miami, Jacksonville and Orlando combined, and that eight of 10 were black. That’s despite the fact that blacks made up just 26 percent of the city’s population.

The TPD said that the reason for the high level of citations was threefold: 1) To improve bicycle safety; 2) to reduce bicycle theft, and 3) to prevent crimes in high-crime areas using the stops are part of a proactive police strategy.

“Our assessments show that those goals of the program were not met,” said Ron Davis, Director of the COPS program. “The data did not validate any three of those reasons offered why the stops were conducted.” He went on to say that his investigative team found that the stops were not effective in reducing crime, they were not effective in recovering stolen bicycles or preventing bike thefts, and they were not effective in increasing bicycle safety.

“What it did do, unintentionally, is to have a disparate impact on people of color riding bikes in Tampa, and it would also strain the relationship between the police and the community,” Davis added.

That strain hasn’t faded away by any stretch. It led to members of the community to demand that the TPD create a citizens’ review board to monitor police procedures and policies, though many of those same citizens are unsatisfied with that review board’s powers or how its members were selecting, leading to a current petition drive to make it tougher.

The report lists a number of findings and recommendations. Among them are to reduce the number of such bicycle stops; more details about why a TPD officer makes such a bicycle stop; that the TPD should monitor the racial disparities in bicycle stops at the department and district levels, as well as the individual office level.

Although then Chief Jane Castor disputed the implications that the TPD employed racial discrimination in the bike ticketing policies, she and Mayor Bob Buckhorn reached out to the DOJ’s COPS program less than two weeks after the story’s publication.

Davis said that the idea of how law enforcement agencies fight crime while ensuring that there not be disparate outcomes is a challenge being faced by every major city in the U.S. was a reason to conduct the yearlong investigation. “This is a national challenge, and in that regard, Tampa is not unique.”

Davis said Chief Castor and Mayor Buckhorn were to be commended for asking for such help.

“It’s been a long year,” admitted Chief Eric Ward, who succeeded Castor less than a month after the Times story hit the press. He said the department had already made some corrections that the report calls for, such as capturing the ethnicities of the cycles cited (previously it only listed those as being black or white). He said the recommendations in the report would only make his department stronger.

The Times also reported last year that TPD officers were rewarded by the number of arrests made. Ward said that policy has been “retooled,” with “stuff” that officers are doing in the community now being captured.

“We welcome this,” added Buckhorn about the report. “Our job moving forward is how we implement these recommendations to be a better police department.”

The mayor was unrepentant when asked if some of those unfairly cited were due an apology.

“I’m never going to apologize for being aggressive in the crime fight. It’s just not going to happen,” he said, acknowledging that while he thinks most people in the community appreciated the tactics. “I don’ think it warrants an apology, but I do think it warrants corrective action.”

As Council members Lisa Montelione and Guido Maniscalco observed the news conference. Buckhorn said that it would be his duty, and not the council’s, to make sure the recommendations in the report were followed by the TPD.

Montelione said she would offer an apology. “Those individuals who feel that they did not deserve the treatment they got should be apologized to,” she said.

“Those individuals who feel that they did not deserve the treatment they got should be apologized to,” she said.

“I don’t want to say this has been a good, positive learning experience, but we have facts on paper here that they can look at going forward, and I think this will all be very positive,” said Maniscalco.

Across the street from the U.S. Attorney’s Office stood four Black Lives Matter activists, who were upset that they were not allowed into the press conference, while other activists were.

“We see this as an opportunity to have tough conversations with the TPD and our community members in how we can build better practices with the TPD with the community’s input,” said Tim Heberlein, political director of Organize Now!

U.S. Attorney Lee Bentley concluded the news conference by emphasizing that while other police departments are being placed under consent decrees by the Department of Justice for actions that they’ve committed, which was decidedly not the case with the Tampa Police Department.

“This is a situation where there was no discriminatory intent,” Bentley said. “There’s been no findings of civil rights violation. The TPD invited COPS to come in and do an analysis and make recommendations,” as he thanked the mayor and police chief.

The ACLU weighed in later Tuesday:

“We are grateful for the DOJ COPS review which validates what the ACLU and Tampa’s Black community have said all along: that the Tampa Police Department’s bicycle stops disproportionately targeted poor Black communities, stigmatizing young Black people with no benefit toward disrupting and preventing serious crimes,” said ACLU of Florida staff attorney Adam Tebrugge.

“Parents and young people impacted by this policy have been saying for years that, whatever their intent, the Tampa Police Department bicycle stop program failed to promote public safety and unjustifiably targeted and stigmatized Black youth,” Tebrugge added. “The report outlines several recommendations and goals going forward which will improve relations between the community and the police department tasked with protecting it that were broken down by the bicycle stop program. We are especially pleased with the recommendations about increasing public transparency and collecting and reporting data on police stops.

“We look forward to working with city leaders and the community to ensure that these recommendations are implemented in a way that fosters mutual trust and respect between citizens and police.”

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 [email protected]

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