Nine days after a report issued out by the Justice Department concluded that the Tampa Police Department’s policy of citing black bicyclists was ineffective but not discriminatory, Chief Eric Ward addressed the City Council on Thursday to discuss the steps he will take to implement the report’s recommendations.
The report was initiated a year ago, after Mayor Bob Buckhorn and former Chief Jane Castor called for the DOJ’s Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program to investigate the police department, in the wake of a Tampa Bay Times report that that the department had been disproportionately citing black bicyclists for citations.
Ward said he had created a working group inside the department to review each of the 20 recommendations listed in the DOJ’s report. That working group is being led by Assistant Chief Brian Dugan, and is made up of officials from the TPD’s training unit, legal dept. and other analysts.
Ward laid out three steps that he says the TPD will do to elicit feedback from the community on how to go forward. The first step they will take is to create a “web-based app” to allow the Tampa public to make their own recommendations. Ward said he also wants the police Citizens Review Board to make their own input, and the third will be a community forum, to allow members of the public to comment (Ward later said there could be more than one such hearing).
Ward said that the department itself has been working on their own recommendations to improve policing standards in the wake of the Times story concurrently with the DOJ’s report. “So some of those things we’ve already addressed…and the other small portion of it, we hope to accomplish in the next 30 days,” he said.
Council members later got into a disagreement on whether the long in the making citizens review board should be involved in providing feedback to the police department. In one of its recommendations, the DOJ report should create an advisory committee “to provide feedback, questions, suggestions, and overall enhanced communication with the TPD on such topics as existing and proposed crime-related initiatives, strategies, and appropriate policies and practices.”
One of the most quoted passages of the report was how the TPD “’burdened” black bicyclists by disproportionately stopping them in the name of ‘benefiting’ black communities by increasing their public safety.
“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,” the report went on to say.
Councilman Frank Reddick asked Ward what he thought about when he read those passages?
“We’re not perfect, so sometimes we implement deployments that we have to adjust and address, and that was one of the things that we’ve done,” the chief replied. He insisted that his officers had never done anything “malicious,” and said that was backed up by the report.
A section of the report under cited members of the community as saying that at times the TPD “can be disrespectful, heavy-handed and even dehumanizing in their interactions with the public, treatment that can provoke adversarial encounters and escalate situations, and that the police need to communicate more effectively with citizens.”
Councilwoman Lisa Montelione that passage was “disturbing” to her, and asked Ward if he had any plans with his officers to address that perception.
Chief Ward said the “piece of the puzzle” that had been missing with his officers was that they did not give a full explanation of “why we were there, and why we were doing what we were doing, meaning trying to reduce crime.” He said a way to address that was through more community involvement, such being part of neighborhood watch groups and integrating more with civic associations, and being involved with the CPR program (Connect, Protect and Respect), a partnership with the Tampa Bay Rays, where officers can offer free baseball tickets when seeing youth involved in good deeds.
“This is a public concern,” Ward later acknowledged. “It’s a concern of mine, and is something that we need to address.”