Proposal for citizen review of Tarpon Springs police gains little support

TARPON SPRINGS — William Kilgore was filming a traffic stop by a Tarpon Springs police officer on Jan. 15 when the officer ordered him to turn over his video camera. Kilgore refused and was arrested.

That incident and others have prompted Kilgore and a friend to form the Citizens Coalition for Police Accountability and issue a call for creation of a civilian police review board in the city.

But so far, city officials haven't felt inclined to appoint a civilian board to judge officers' actions.

"I 100 percent do not agree or think it's necessary," said City Manager Mark LeCouris, the former police chief. "If citizens don't like our internal review, they have other avenues. There is FDLE (the Florida Department of Law Enforcement) and they can file lawsuits. There are mechanisms for people who feel that they are truly aggrieved."

City commissioners agree there is no need.

"I'm very satisfied with the service that our police are providing at this point," Commissioner Jeff Larsen said.

Kilgore and Thomas Frain, the 20-year-old co-founders of Citizens Coalition for Police Accountability, say the purpose of a civilian review board is to provide a second look at the work of police. Under current procedures, police investigate themselves.

"We need something separate from an internal investigation, because they are investigating themselves and not doing an honest assessment," Kilgore said. "It's cops, and they stick up for other police. You need something separate from that."

Kilgore and Frain said they would not be members of the review board if it were created, and their organization would have nothing to do with it.

The board would consist of residents appointed by the City Commission and would not have authority to punish officers, Frain said. Instead, it would make suggestions and would provide a way to document incidents. Civilian review boards help restore citizens' faith in the police, he said.

Because the City Commission has failed to put the request for a review board on its agenda, Frain said a group will attend the commission's July 5 meeting and speak during the public comment portion of the meeting.

"We want it put on an agenda so it can be discussed," Frain said. "Otherwise, it's just silencing the public, and I don't think that's the way to conduct business."

Michael Krohn, general counsel for the Sun Coast Police Benevolent Association, said citizen review boards often reach conclusions based on emotion.

"Citizens who are reviewing a law enforcement action are not thinking with training and common sense, but are solely relying on their heart," Krohn said.

Krohn said when a resident witnesses five police officers trying to restrain a small woman, "it's easy to say that's excessive force" and ask, "Why couldn't one officer do that?" he said.

"When an untrained citizen makes that observation, they don't realize that it's not supposed to be a fair fight, but it's about making sure everyone is safe," Krohn said. "And the more officers on hand, the safer everyone is."

St. Petersburg has a civilian review board. At the conclusion of an internal affairs investigation involving a resident complaint, the board reviews the case and decides whether it agrees or disagrees with the outcome. The review board's decision does not affect the officer or change the outcome of the internal investigation, but it can lead to recommendations for policy changes in the Police Department.

Kilgore and Frain had been thinking for a while about forming a group like Citizens Coalition for Police Accountability, but what happened Jan. 15 spurred them on.

That day, Kilgore and Frain were watching a Tarpon Springs police officer conduct a traffic stop and drug arrest. Kilgore was videotaping the incident. He was arrested after he refused several times to turn over the video, and his camera was seized.

Tarpon police said they wanted the video because it showed the driver giving an officer consent to search and the subsequent discovery of a controlled substance.

Kilgore was charged with resisting without violence, but the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office declined to pursue the charges and Kilgore's camera was returned to him.

Kilgore filed a complaint with five allegations ranging from conduct unbecoming an officer to knowingly and willfully making false entry in a department report or record. On April 27, a police internal investigation determined that Kilgore's complaints were unfounded.

Police Chief Bob Kochen said that the department investigates all complaints and that officers are disciplined when they violate a policy. But the January incident has led to change in the department.

The following month, all officers received training about a citizen's right to record their actions as long as they do not interfere with the officer's work. A section on handling a citizen videographer was added to the department's field training program.

Departments around the country are making changes in response to the popularity of "cop watching" by citizens, who often videotape police activity and post the videos online or share them with news outlets.

In October, the Tarpon Springs department will spend $152,000 worth of drug forfeiture money to equip every police squad car with front and rear cameras as well as microphones to record officer conversations.

"We live in a world of technology and cameras are everywhere, and over the last decade it's something police departments have had to adjust to," Kochen said. "The bottom line is, with our own cameras in our cars, officers can use (the video) in their own case, and if they do something wrong, that would be caught too. Video can be a good tool for our officers and citizens."

Kochen said the audio and video recordings will go directly to a central server and will be tamper resistant.

The January incident has not stopped Kilgore and Frain from recording Tarpon police traffic stops and filing complaints. The two contend that there are some bad officers in Tarpon's department. When officers know they are being videotaped, "they tend to mellow out a little more and try to be more polite," Kilgore said. "We are a deterrent."

Frain and Kilgore have filed complaints that range from too many officers on a traffic stop to officers being out of their zones. Kochen said the constant complaints drain staff time because they have to be investigated.

And while he has no problem with officers being filmed, Kochen is concerned about the group's rhetoric. He noted that its Facebook page presents a derogatory view of police.

"I don't agree with some of the things they say on their site," Kochen said. "It's their right to feel the way they do. We are going to continue to do our job."

Contact Demorris A. Lee at dalee@sptimes.com and (727) 445-4174.

Proposal for citizen review of Tarpon Springs police gains little support 06/25/11 [Last modified: Saturday, June 25, 2011 2:29pm]

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