An effort in Tampa to build trust between law enforcement and minority residents is fast becoming one of the most divisive issues in years. The City Council's discussion Thursday on creating a citizens review board that would examine complaints against police devolved into a fight of churlish, defensive, personal attacks — not from activists in the audience, but from the people in charge at City Hall. It was a terrible start on an issue aimed at building relationships rather than tearing them down.
Creating a board to oversee allegations of police misconduct is a sensitive discussion that is played out at the intersection of politics and race in any community. The recent reports by the Tampa Bay Times of harassment by Tampa police of black cyclists and the surge in violence across the country against both police officers and those detained by law enforcement makes this debate especially delicate but even more essential.
Yet everyone from Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn to the City Council members and their staffs seems to have brought power politics and petty issues to a discussion that demands genuine leadership. Buckhorn got off on the wrong foot by pre-empting the council's research into the issue and announcing he will largely appoint and steer a review board on his own. Council Chairman Frank Reddick dropped the ball at the start by proposing the board but handing off the research work to the new police chief, Eric Ward, a mayoral appointee who was caught in the middle.
By Thursday, when dozens of activists crowded the council chamber, the festering power struggle at City Hall siphoned the focus away from what a review board should do to who would control it. By lunch, city lawyers were trading barbs with each other, the council was questioning the advice of the city attorney and the city attorney was asking for outside counsel to clear up any ethical concerns. Later Thursday, the council agreed to resume its discussion later this month, when it will consider grabbing control of the board away from the mayor.
Buckhorn and Reddick set this explosion of ego into motion, and they have a responsibility to get the conversation back on course. Council member Harry Cohen once again was a voice of reason. For the sake of the review board, the professional reputations of the staff, and the relationship between the mayor and council members for the three years they have remaining in their terms, it is time to quit bickering about who has the most power. The question is how to make the review board meaningful and functional at the earliest possible time.