TAMPA — Disturbed by weeks of unrest in Ferguson, Mo., with its scenes of rifle-pointing police in riot gear, armored military vehicles and the use of tear gas, the City Council sought reassurance Thursday that Tampa wouldn't see the same kind of bristling confrontation if tensions rose here.
"I'd like to hear that that's not what we're going to see," council member Mary Mulhern said.
"I'll tell you: That's not what you're going to see," police Chief Jane Castor responded. "Our job is to ensure that all of our citizens have a very safe environment in which to express their opinion, whatever that opinion may be, whatever form or fashion that expression may come in."
Castor pointed to the Tampa Police Department's record of working with residents and protesters during the Republican National Convention ("We were on a first-name basis with the protesters"), during Occupy Tampa's settlement in West Tampa and during the manhunt for cop-killer Dontae Morris, which brought police in force to east Tampa.
"It's our job to ensure that our community is safe, so we have to be prepared," Castor said. "You would never see on the streets of Tampa under the same circumstances what you saw on national news over the past few weeks. That I can guarantee."
Council member Frank Reddick had requested that police tell the council about sensitivity training that officers get and how the demographic breakdown of the police force compares with that of the city it serves.
Reddick asked for the report because he has heard there could be "marches and other things taking place" in Tampa if a grand jury in Missouri clears Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson, who is white, in the fatal Aug. 9 shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, 18.
With that in mind, council members asked Castor what would trigger the use of armored vehicles or military-style equipment in a protest here.
"We take those decisions very seriously," Castor said. She said police have gotten rid of some "munitions" they bought for the GOP convention, but have other equipment "to keep our community safe."
"We have to be prepared with that equipment, but that doesn't mean we're going to use it," she said. "If we use those pieces of equipment, it's going to be for the safety of the community, and the officers as well. It wouldn't have come out in the circumstances like it was used recently."
Generally, Castor said, police emphasize education as much as enforcement. As a result, 32 percent of traffic stops end with a warning rather than a ticket, and 55 percent of instances where officers detain someone end with a referral to social services or something other than arrest. While police plan to equip 60 officers with body cameras as part of a pilot project, she said an officer's main tool is an ability to communicate and dispel fear.
Tampa officers are screened for having the right attitude before they are hired, are told at their swearing-in that the department's "golden rule" is "everyone is treated with dignity and respect," are focused on being a positive influence for youth, and receive continuing training in treating those they encounter in a fair and impartial way, Castor said.
When it comes to working with protests, "our first step is to reach out to the protesters and try to see how we can facilitate their expression," she said. Police do want to make sure no one is committing crime and no one is getting hurt.
The city has nearly 1,000 officers, and 31 percent of the department are minorities, Castor said. Add in women, and 41 percent of police employees are women or minorities. Twenty-six percent of Tampa residents are black, and 14 percent of the police force is black. Twenty-three percent of the city's population is Hispanic, and 15 percent of police employees are Hispanic.
That's better than in Ferguson, where more than 67 percent of residents are black and at least 92 percent of police are white, but Reddick said there's room for improvement.
"The African-American and Hispanic numbers are not good," he said.
Contact Richard Danielson at [email protected]tampabay.com or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times.