Activists push for referendum to change Tampa’s police review board
Local activists and Tampa City Council chairman Frank Reddick called Wednesday for a referendum to replace Tampa's new police review board with a community-based investigative and oversight panel with much broader powers.
To make that happen, organizers say they'll work to gather more than 21,000 signatures of city voters by July so they can get an initiative on the November ballot.
Starting over is necessary, Reddick said, because the city’s new Citizens Review Board is not a meaningful counter-balance to policing that disproportionately targets minority neighborhoods.
“We failed,” said Reddick, who voted against creating the board, during a news conference at the offices of the Hillsborough County branch of the NAACP. He said “some on the council” buckled to political pressure “and did not make the right choice.”
A coalition of local groups going by the name Tampa for Justice wants a board with its own attorney, civilian personnel and budget.
They say it also should have the authority to take complaints directly from the public, launch its own investigations, subpoena officers and play an advisory role in hiring new officers.
“Right now, a citizen, if they have a police complaint, has to go in directly to the Police Department and go through several layers of police inquiry simply to fill out a complaint form,” said the Rev. Russell Meyer, co-chairman of Tampa for Justice. “That whole process is a form of intimidation. So there are a lot of things that never get brought to the light of day.”
In response, Mayor Bob Buckhorn said activists are entitled to seek a referendum, but he doubted “the vast majority of people in this community will support it.”
“I don’t personally happen to think it’s needed,” he said. "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."
Under Tampa’s charter, voters can propose ordinances to the City Council by getting 10 percent of the city’s 211,158 registered voters to sign a petition.
Once that happened, the council would consider the proposal outlined in the petition. If the ordinance weren’t enacted, then voters would consider passing it themselves at a city election.
The charter also includes some restrictions on what voters can approve through this process. In particular, it does not give them powers related to the budget or appropriation of money.
That could be an issue since the activists want a board like Miami’s, which has had an annual budget ranging from $500,000 to $1 million.
The City Council approved a plan for Tampa’s police review board in October after a couple of months of contentious debate. The new board, which will review closed internal affairs cases involving the use of force and police pursuits from the Tampa Police Department, along with other topics of public concern, held its first meeting last month.
Tampa City Attorney Julia Mandell has said neither the mayor nor City Council could delegate the authority to issue subpoenas to a police review board without a change to the charter. (Miami changed its charter to create that authority.)
Buckhorn's administration also has said that a review board that tried to get involved in officer discipline would conflict with a state law known as the "Police Officer's Bill of Rights." That law makes internal affairs investigations the only way to handle citizen complaints that could lead to officer discipline.
Changing the charter, Buckhorn said, won't change that law.
Some opponents of the review board, he said, "would like to turn this into a kangaroo court attacking our police officers, and I'm just not going to stand by and let it happen. The board that we set up is a board that I think will do this community justice."
To activists, the officer’s bill of rights is part of the problem, because, they say, it gives officers more rights than other citizens. And the new police review board, they say, is weak and worthless.
Asked about the prospects of getting enough signatures of city voters to put something on the ballot, Meyer pointed to a poll that Saint Leo University conducted nationally and in Florida last October indicating that African-American respondents had less trust in police officers, departments and courts than those polled as a whole. About a quarter of black respondents said they had little or no trust in law enforcement or the judicial system.
And it's just not black residents, said Ana Lamb, president of Council No. 7250 of the League of United Latin American Citizens.
"Every single day we receive complaints, also, from the Hispanic community," she said.
"What we really face is a communication issue in which, depending on where you live in this city, you have a completely different kind of life experience," Meyer said. "So our real challenge is helping communities understand the real experience on the streets that they go through every day. ... We believe that once that life experience is shared, people will understand the necessity and they'll step up and support the petition and they'll step up to support changes in the Tampa city review process."
The announcement of the petition drive came as NAACP Hillsborough branch president Dr. Bennie Small and first vice president Natasha Goodley are heading to Washington D.C. to testify Friday to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. The subject of the hearing will be "Municipal Policing and Courts: A Search for Justice or a Quest for Revenue?"
Tampa for Justice organizers pointed to reports by the Tampa Bay Times on Tampa police practices regarding ticketing bicyclists — 80 percent of whom tend to be black — and basing evaluations of officer performance on statistics that include stops, tickets and arrests as issues of concern.
Under new Police Chief Eric Ward, the department now issues fewer tickets and is moving to assess officer performance more on the quality of officers' interactions with the community than on the quantity of their enforcement actions.
But while officers are "using discretion in issuing tickets," Reddick said, "people are still being stopped. People are being stopped every day. Two days ago I saw four officers stop a bicyclist on 22nd Street."
The biker didn't get a ticket, Reddick said, but "why did it take four officers to surround one person on a bicycle?"