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Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor calls Times piece unfair, yet agrees to call in Justice Dept. to review citations of black bicyclists

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

In her five-and-a-half-year tenure as chief of the Tampa Police Department, Jane Castor has received mostly laudatory treatment from the media and the community, even though there have been some high-profile misdoings at the department during that time.

But nothing has rocked the department back on its heels more than the revelations reported by Tampa Bay Times‘ Alexandra Zayas and Kameel Stanley over the weekend that the department has been disproportionately singling out black bicyclists for infractions.

Facing the media for the first time since the story broke, Castor said she thought the story was unfair, but nevertheless has agreed to make changes in the department, including calling in the U.S. Justice Department to review how the TPD handles citing black cyclists for infractions.

“I think that article tried to imply that the Tampa Police Department was in someway racist,” Castor said on Wednesday. “Ask the citizens of Sulpher Springs, East Tampa, Robles Park, if their quality of life has improved. The crime’s been reduced in the neighborhood, and they have a good relationship with the community,” adding, “You’re going to find examples of individuals who don’t have a good relationship with the police, but overall, the relationships are good.”

The Times found that the TPD had written 2,504 bike tickets over a period of three years, and 80 percent of those tickets were handed to black people, who make up just 26 percent of the population.

Castor said the department uses the tools of enforcement and education when dealing with bicycle safety, with a concentration of bike thefts occurring in the areas of Sulpher Springs, Robles Park and East Tampa. “We ask all of our officers, every single bike stop, that they do it based on the law.”

The chief said on Tuesday that she sat down with officials from the NAACP, the ACLU, the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and LULAC (The League of Latin American Citizens). “We agree these stats are troublesome, and that we need to review this and we need to decide as a community what we’re going to do about this.”

That includes having Tampa Police officials meet on a monthly basis at the NAACP’s Hillsborough County offices, “Where citizens can come in and discuss any issues they may have with the Tampa Police Department.”

Castor said the department has contacted Ronald L. Davis, the director of the U.S. Department of Justice office that focuses on community-oriented policing, to send somebody from his office to review the way the department has been handling the citation of black cyclists. She said there is no determined period of how far the research will go, saying that she didn’t want to dictate in anyway how the DOJ will go about such a report.

The department will also implement immediately a new tracking system to monitor every traffic stop, ticket, and warning issued, including those for cyclists.

The ACLU’s Joyce Hamilton Henry watched the press conference from the back of the room in TPD headquarters. She says she was stunned when she read the statistics of black bicycle arrests in the Times story.

“We were shocked by the data, because on the surface, it’s very disturbing.” She said that the ACLU is doing its own analysis “to see what it tells us beyond what was reported in the article.”

But Castor attempted to downplay the statistics, saying that out of the more than 101,000 traffic citations the TPD made last year (those include violations involving motor vehicles, bikes and pedestrians), bike citations were one-half of one percent, or 544 overall. Of those 544 bike citations, however, 443 were of African Americans. She said a leading trend in crime recently are bicycle thefts, and it’s something the agency is focusing more often on.

The chief spent the first four minutes of the press conference extolling how much the TPD had reduced crime over the past 12 years, standing behind two maps showing Part 1 offenses in 2003 and Part 1 offenses in 2014, with the neighborhoods with high crime rates rates in red for more than 120 offenses (Part 1 offenses include murder, robbery, forcible rape, burglary, aggravated assault, larceny theft, motor vehicle theft and arson.)

The differences were stark, with the maps showing that there were 133 areas coded as “red grid” or high-crime areas in 2002, and only seven such areas in 2014.

Those reduced crime rates do reflect a national trend, however. The FBI reported last fall that violent crimes in America including murder fell 4.4 percent in 2013 to their lowest number since the 1970s.

Joyce Hamilton Henry of the ACLU says she’s not ready to call what the TPD has been engaged in as “racial profiling,” not yet anyhow. And she applauded Castor for the changes announced today.

The Times piece reported that Castor herself refused to meet up with the reporters on the story for weeks, instead choosing only to answer questions written out in advance. She said today that her refusal to meet with the reporters did not mean in any way that she didn’t take the charges seriously.

“We asked to see the data that they had and asked if they could review that to see if in fact there was a problem, and we were not allowed to see that data,” she said. She said she did not agree to a sit-down interview, but responded in written form so that her responses “would not be misconstrued,” adding that she still hasn’t seen the data that the Times used to report its story.

Looking confident throughout most of the 20-minute press conference, Castor emphasized again and again that she is running “an outstanding agency.”

“The reason we’ve been successful is the relationship with our citizens. They trust that we’re going to do the right thing, and if the citizens didn’t trust the police department, we would be useless. We would be completely ineffective.”

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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