There was some anger. There was a lot of pain. But there wasn’t a whole log of hope expressed by Tampa residents regarding the treatment they’ve received from the Tampa Police Department at a town hall meeting hosted by the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) in Ybor City Tuesday night.
This was the second time that the COPS office has visited Tampa since a Tampa Bay Times expose in April revealed that the Tampa Police Department had issued an extraordinary high number of bike tickets, primarily to blacks, from 2003-2015. More than 10,000 bike tickets were issued — 79 percent of them to blacks, even though they comprise only 26 percent of the city’s population.
Their first visit in late May was with Tampa Police officers to fully understand the issues at hand and collect data. But last night no officers were allowed to attend the event, so as to allow a free- flowing candid conversation without intimidation (though there was one officer seen at the back of the Performing Arts Building Mainstage theatre on the Hillsborough Community College’s Ybor’s campus).
“I’m telling you that this issue is a lot bigger than bikes,” said community organizer Crystal Wilson, a line that was repeated by other speakers throughout the two-hour-plus meeting. “This issue of racism and being targeted by police and suffering from police brutality is not focused on bikes. It truly is.”
Activists have expressed frustration since Mayor Bob Buckhorn and former Police Chief Jane Castor called for the COPS program to investigate the TPD following the Times report, saying that they preferred the U.S. Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, who has more authority to make changes to the department.
“We don’t have enforcement authority, but we do have the court of public opinion,” said Matthew Scheider, assistant director for the COPS program. He added that it was a good sign that the TPD had requested the investigation.
Instead, the session was referred to as a “community listening session,” by Jim Letten, former U.S. attorney for Eastern Louisiana and now an assistant dean with the Tulane University School of Law. The fact that neither he, nor the other members of the COPS office and the Virginia Center for Policing Innovation who sat at a long table as a sort of silent jury was black was also mentioned frequently by those who spoke at the meeting.
The overriding theme of the evening was that there are deep and ugly relations between the TPD and the black community, and bike citations were not the crux of the problem.
“This is a race issue,” Joe Robinson, second vice chair of the Hillsborough County NAACP said as the first of the evening’s speakers.
There were several speakers who spoke of their own abuse at the hands of the TPD, or of family members, who in two specific cases died in incidents involving local law enforcement. The tone of many was angry, others despairing.
Two sons of the late Arthur Green Jr. discussed how he died of a diabetic seizure while being detained by police during a traffic stop for driving erratically. “He treated Arthur Green Jr. as though he was a common criminal,” said Dr. Kurt Young, referring to the officer who handled the traffic situation in Seminole Heights last year.
Another poignant moment was when Andrew Joseph Jr. spoke. He’s the father of the late Andrew Joseph III, the 14-year-old black youth who was arrested along with dozens of other young black children at the Florida State Fair in 2014 for disorderly conduct. Hillsborough County sheriff deputies then let Arthur Joseph III leave their custody away from the Florida Fairgrounds. He was later killed crossing I-4.
There were also a handful of white people who criticized cyclists, and said that the issue wasn’t racial at all. “The fact that the Tampa Police Department is ticketing these people is the greatest thing that is happening in this town,” said Jitske Bergman.
Attorney Michael Maddux says Tampa cops are not prepared to de-escalate intense situations. He said the department had a lot of good people, “and some very sick people,” including one who he claimed shot a client of his, Jason Turk, in the face.
Later in the evening Turk himself addressed the crowd. A Navy veteran, he said it would be “nice” to have the department act with more of a “guardian mentality than a warrior mentality.”
“I’ve seen many of my friends killed in combat,” he said slowly. “And we seemed to be able to do a better job than police departments here in the U.S. do, when it comes to how we operate with guns.” He also decried how many police departments had become militarized in recent years.
COPS officials (who worked alongside the Virginia Center for Policing Innovation), in hosting the meeting, said that they hope to complete their investigation and provide recommendations to TPD Chief Eric Ward by the end of the year. Citizens can still add comments anonymously with Tampa Police at vcpionline.org.
Whether the Tampa Police Department chooses to act on those recommendations is completely up to them, however.