Monday, July 16, 2018

Activists push for referendum to change Tampa's police review board

TAMPA — Local activists and the City Council chairman called Wednesday for a referendum to replace Tampa's new police review board with an investigative and oversight panel that would have much broader power.

To make that happen, organizers say they'll work to gather more than 21,000 signatures of Tampa voters by July so they can get an initiative on the ballot in November.

Starting over is necessary, council Chairman Frank Reddick said, because the city's new Citizens Review Board is not a meaningful counterbalance 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 from the public, launch investigations, subpoena officers and play an advisory role in hiring 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. It does not give them powers related to the budget or appropriation of money.

That could be an issue since activists want a board like Miami's, which has had a budget ranging from $500,000 to $1 million a year.

The City Council approved the Citizens Review Board in October after a couple of months of contentious debate.

The new board, which held its first meeting last month, will review closed internal affairs cases involving the use of force and police pursuits from the Police Department, along with other topics of public concern.

In the past, Tampa City Attorney Julia Mandell has said neither the mayor nor the council could delegate the authority to issue subpoenas to a police review board without a change to the city charter.

Buckhorn also says 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."

Asked about the prospects of getting enough signatures, Meyer pointed to a Saint Leo University poll that last October found that African-American respondents had less trust in police officers, departments and courts than those polled as a whole.

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.

"We believe that once that life experience is shared, people will understand the necessity and they'll step up and support the petition," Meyer said.

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