Sunday, January 21, 2018
News Roundup

Tampa City Council wants more picks for Citizens Review Board for police

TAMPA — There was accusation, acrimony and the airing of long-standing grievances.

And that was just the City Council talking with its attorneys.

After one of its most tense meetings in recent memory, the council voted Thursday to try to change the makeup of Mayor Bob Buckhorn's new Citizens Review Board for police.

The idea of creating a review board has energized critics of the Tampa Police Department, many of them black, who say the agency unfairly targets poor and minority neighborhoods. Meanwhile, council members complain Buckhorn ignored their wishes when he signed an executive order to create the panel on Aug. 28.

Buckhorn treats the council like "a puppet," council Chairman Frank Reddick said. "We've been embarrassed, overlooked, overshadowed."

So the council voted 6-1 to ask the City Attorney's Office to bring back a draft ordinance on Sept. 24 that would codify Buckhorn's executive order.

But it wants one big change.

Instead of the mayor appointing nine members and the council two, the council wants to appoint seven, and have the mayor appoint two, plus two alternates.

Charlie Miranda cast the only no vote. Picking this fight under Tampa's strong-mayor form of government would "tear apart this government," he said.

"Whether the mayor is right or wrong, that's up to the public to decide," Miranda said.

The panel will review incidents involving the use of force and pursuits — once internal affairs investigations are complete — as well as department policies and procedures in search of improvements.

Police Chief Eric Ward said he used as a model St. Petersburg's review board, which has considered 208 cases and made seven recommendations for change over the past six years.

"That's a great model," Ward said.

But nearly 40 speakers disagreed. They offered a petition signed by about 500 people saying the review board would not be independent, but would be ineffective and untrustworthy.

"So far, Tampa has been lucky in recent years because we've avoided a Ferguson moment," said Mike Pheneger, chairman of the Greater Tampa chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. "We have had an Arthur Green moment, and that's disturbing."

Arthur Green Jr., 63, died last year after suffering a bout of extremely low blood sugar and being pulled over by Tampa police who said he was driving erratically. He stopped breathing and died after being pinned to the ground because officers said he became combative. His widow has sued the city of Tampa and the officers involved in federal court.

"I support the Citizens Review Board so other families don't have to go through what we've had to go through this past year," Arthur Green III said.

Also speaking were the mother, her attorney and the roommate of Jason Westcott, 29, who was shot and killed at his Seminole Heights home in May 2014 after a police SWAT team executing a search warrant for marijuana said he grabbed a gun. The search turned up $2 worth of marijuana. An informer later told the Tampa Bay Times he lied and was encouraged to lie by an undercover officer to help build a case against Westcott.

"A review board that works is definitely necessary," Westcott's mother, Patti Silliman, said. "I want accountability. Somebody needs to be held accountable for what happened to my son."

While activists framed their arguments in life-or-death terms, the council discussion that followed featured tit-for-tat exchanges that touched on points of parliamentary procedure, disputes years in the making and a milk shake.

At the center of that discussion was what the council's authority is in Tampa's strong-mayor form of government.

Buckhorn asserts that the authority to create a review board belongs to him, and he has an opinion from City Attorney Julia Mandell backing him up.

That bothered Reddick, who wondered whether Mandell would slant her opinion in Buckhorn's favor since he hired her.

"I personally think you've done a disservice to this council," Reddick told Mandell. "There's a conflict of interest on your behalf, and it's hard for any member of this council to sit here and trust what you share with us."

Mandell, who previously has said she represents the interests of the city as a whole and does not have a conflict of interest — she said she has even checked with three previous city attorneys on that question — asked the council to allow her to get an outside legal opinion on the issue. Council members agreed.

Later, City Council attorney Martin Shelby said nothing in the charter stopped council members from creating a review board themselves.

"It's a logical fallacy to believe that a strong mayor must equal a weak City Council," he said. "It's not a balance of power. It is a separation of power. You can have a strong mayor and a strong City Council, which, working together … creates a strong city."

But Shelby's premeeting discussions with council members brought a sharp critique from Miranda, who said he wasn't interested in having private conversations. And it wasn't the first time Miranda, formerly the council's chairman, publicly rebuked the attorney.

Miranda said he had twice thought of firing him. Then he brought up the time Shelby brought him a milk shake while Miranda was seriously ill but really seemed to want to discuss whether Miranda could vote on a controversial issue by telephone.

" 'Get the hell out,' " Miranda said he told Shelby. "Oh yeah, I remember everything."

Miranda started to allude to Shelby's prelaw ambition to be a Broadway performer, saying, "you are a great actor," before being cut off.

"Irrespective of Mr. Miranda's attempt to smear and destroy my reputation," Shelby said, he takes his job seriously, including when he has had to stand up to Miranda with unwelcome advice.

Yvonne Yolie Capin said she had no problem with Shelby's work.

"It is very important what is happening here today," she said. "Our legislative power has been undermined. It was stated that we're unraveling the city. We're not. We're actually trying to clarify representative government."

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Published: 01/20/18