The U.S. Department of Justice will review the Tampa Police Department's enforcement of bicycle laws after a Tampa Bay Times investigation found 79 percent of the agency's bike tickets go to black residents.
Mayor Bob Buckhorn said Wednesday that he and police Chief Jane Castor asked federal officials to review the program because their expertise can "bring clarity to us and to the community and may help evolve our current strategies."
"Racial profiling is not just illegal, it is unjust and immoral. It is not — and has never been — tolerated in the Tampa Police Department or any city department or division," Buckhorn said in a statement that was his first public comment on the issue.
At a news conference, Castor defended her department's tactics and repeatedly touted the drop in crime in the city. But she acknowledged the stark disparity the Times investigation found.
"We agree that these statistics for bike citations are troublesome and we need to review this and we need to decide as a community what we need to do about this," Castor said.
Beginning immediately, Buckhorn said, Tampa police will implement a new tracking system to monitor every traffic stop, ticket and warning issued, including those for cyclists.
All officers, he said, will be reminded of the appropriate policies and procedures for issuing citations to cyclists. Castor said there are plans to set up monthly meetings where the public can talk to a department representative and the NAACP about any issues with police treatment.
A Times investigation published over the weekend showed that Tampa police issue more bicycle tickets than any other agency in Florida, including those in Jacksonville, Miami, St. Petersburg and Orlando combined. Eight out of 10 go to blacks, even though blacks make up just 26 percent of the city's population.
Most of these tickets cluster in the city's poor, black neighborhoods. Some residents have received more than a dozen tickets; some have gotten more than three tickets in one day.
The Times found that, for years, Tampa police have used bike stops as a proactive policing strategy in high-crime neighborhoods. The department has encouraged officers to pull over people for infractions like riding without a light and carrying a rider on the handlebars in hopes of uncovering or preventing greater crimes.
City Council Chairman Frank Reddick said the newspaper's findings are "embarrassing" and called for an investigation into whether civil rights had been violated.
Legal experts interviewed by the Times said there was strong evidence to believe so.
Castor did not speak to these concerns in an op-ed published this week. She noted blacks receive 29 percent of tickets for all traffic offenses in Tampa, and reiterated her point that many who receive bike tickets are involved in criminal activity. She also gave examples of people on bikes committing crimes.
"Our tactics are very strategic and we're also very surgical in the way we go out and enforce crime," Castor said Wednesday at her news conference. "We don't throw a net over an area."
Community leaders said they are pleased with the decision to have an independent review of the department's practices.
"I think that makes sense. It is a problem," said W. James Favorite, pastor of the Beulah Baptist Institutional Church.
Favorite said local pastors and community leaders have been talking with law enforcement, schools and Justice Department officials in recent months about issues related to policing in the black community, including gun violence and police officer training.
Local pastor and former Tampa City Council and Hillsborough County Commission chairman Tom Scott said he has been attending similar meetings.
"This here is another issue that we must address to make sure there is justice and equality and to ensure that there is no profiling," he said.
Since the Times story was published, Scott said, there has been a lot of discussion among black residents. When he went for his daily 5:30 a.m. workout at the Central City YMCA, "the minute I opened the door, there was a big discussion."
Officials at the American Civil Liberties Union said they are analyzing the ticket data to determine whether to file a lawsuit.
Buckhorn said the Justice Department review will be coordinated by assistant police Chief Eric Ward, a finalist for Castor's job. She is stepping down as chief May 8.
The city will share the report with the public.
"There are still people outraged in the black community," Reddick said. "I think a lot of people, including me, think this could have been handled a lot better. … We're all about working with police, trying to bridge the gap. When these types of things (happen), it expands that gap instead of making us come closer."
Prior to publication, the Times repeatedly asked the Tampa Police Department for an interview with Castor. She declined, but issued written statements. Castor told reporters Wednesday that the department requested the Times' data, but was not allowed to see it.
The department has not asked the Times to provide bicycle ticket data, which is generated when officers write citations. The data is maintained by the court system and is available to the public.