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Civil rights groups call for reform of law enforcement review boards

The local NAACP and ACLU want the Tampa police and Hillsboroughsheriff to give their review boards more power.
A group protesting police violence gathers in front of the Tampa Police Department on Sunday. In the wake of recent clashes between protesters and the police, civil rights groups are calling for the city of Tampa to give its Citizen Review Board more power to review police actions.
A group protesting police violence gathers in front of the Tampa Police Department on Sunday. In the wake of recent clashes between protesters and the police, civil rights groups are calling for the city of Tampa to give its Citizen Review Board more power to review police actions. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Jun. 10, 2020
Updated Jun. 10, 2020

TAMPA — As demonstrators take to the streets to protest police brutality and demand reform, civil rights groups are calling for Tampa Bay law enforcement agencies to give their police review boards more teeth — or create a board if they don’t have one.

In Tampa, the calls are a renewal of demands made since the city created its Citizens Review Board five years ago. At a news conference Wednesday, the Hillsborough Branch of the NAACP and the Greater Tampa Chapter of the ACLU said recent clashes between protesters and police reinforce the need to give the board sweeping new authority to investigate use-of-force incidents and allegations of police misconduct.

“It has no power,” NAACP branch president Yvette Lewis said as she stood among other community activists gathered in front of City Hall. “They only come in after the investigation is complete. Let’s all revamp it and work together.”

Related: Tampa's police oversight board enters third year with mixed reviews

In an interview, Lewis said the groups want the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office to consider enacting similar reforms.

The Clearwater/Upper Pinellas NAACP branch released a statement last week calling for all law enforcement agencies to create citizen review boards with subpoena power. The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office and the Clearwater Police Department do not have review boards.

Created in 2015 amid tension between residents and police, including an uproar over the disproportionate ticketing of black bicyclists, Tampa’s police review board was supposed to build trust and transparency. The assessment of the board’s effectiveness since then has been mixed.

Police say the board has performed a valuable function, publicly reviewing internal affairs cases and holding public forums on hot-button topics like immigration and police use of body cameras. Critics from groups such as Tampa for Justice say the panel functions as a rubber stamp that doesn’t have enough independence, undercutting public trust. Tampa for Justice spearheaded an effort in 2016 to give the board more independence.

Past efforts to bolster the panel’s power didn’t gain traction. Now the chorus of calls has reached a new pitch in the wake of the death last month of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police and ensuing demonstrations in Tampa Bay that have led at times to clashes with police.

The local civil rights groups voiced concern about what they saw as unnecessary use of force against peaceful protesters. Police Chief Brian Dugan has defended his officers, saying they were forced to use tools like pepper spray and less-lethal munitions.

A strong review board would increase transparency, accountability and community trust in law enforcement agencies at a critical time, said Julius Adams, an attorney with the Greater Tampa ACLU chapter.

“Reform is needed now, and the only we’re going to get reform is to work together,” Adams said.

Here are some of the powers proposed for the review board:

• An advisory role in hiring police officers, including reviewing applications and sitting in on interviews.

• Review complaints from the public about the department and vote on whether to investigate each complaint.

• Review the report whenever an officer’s firearm is discharged and vote on whether to investigate.

• Discretion to investigate other matters involving the department.

• Conduct evidentiary hearings and issue subpoenas for documents and witness testimony under oath.

• Issue recommendations to the department and/or the mayor at the conclusion of each investigation.

The groups also want the board to be staffed by an independent attorney, independent investigators and administrative staff, and receive sufficient funding to carry out its duties.

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor helped draft plans for the Citizen Review Board in 2015 before she retired as police chief. In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times on Wednesday, she said she is willing to talk to anyone about why they think the current board isn’t working.

One suggested reform, giving subpoena powers to the board, isn’t possible, Castor said, citing a 2017 Florida Supreme Court ruling. In that unanimous decision, the justices overturned subpoena powers for Miami’s police oversight board, saying such boards can’t compel officers to appear while under investigation because it violates a state law protecting officers’ rights.

“I’m not sure what they’re asking for," Castor said. “So that would be a discussion that I would have to have with them.”

Castor said she hadn’t been contacted about the issue by the NAACP or ACLU.

She said staffing the board with an independent investigator and an attorney would require discussion. And she said the city is planning to involve the board in reviewing its response to the recent protests.

“So I would want whoever is calling for the subpoena power or the additional oversight to have a sit down to ensure that they are fully aware of what’s occurring today," the mayor said. “And then, you know, determining if they still feel that something else, something additional is necessary.”

The review board’s next meeting is 6 p.m. June 23 at the Tampa Convention Center.

The Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office has a shooting review board composed of department heads, legal counsel, and members of the public including representatives of its black, Hispanic and Indian advisory councils. Lewis with the NAACP said she was invited to sit in on a shooting review board meeting last year to discuss a deputy’s fatal shooting of a 17-year-old boy in Tampa.

In a statement to the Times, Sheriff Chad Chronister said his office is listening to the proposals by the NAACP, the ACLU and other groups and are “eager” to work with them.

“We will gladly sit at a table with these important community voices, agree where possible, and openly work through our differences so that together we can make progress,” Chronister said.

St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway told a Times reporter during protests on Saturday that he might consider giving that city’s review panel more power if necessary. He said already has to answer to the board.

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri was not available for an interview Wednesday, a spokeswoman said.

A review board could be on the horizon in the Clearwater.

“City staff is currently studying and evaluating citizen review boards and will have discussions about them in the near future,” Clearwater Police Chief Daniel Slaughter said in a statement to the Times.

At the news conference in Tampa, the Rev. Kendrix Gardner, executive pastor at News Friendship Baptist Church, said it would be “a sin against humanity” to let this moment of heightened civic engagement go by without pushing for change.

“Protesters made needed noise,” Gardner said, “but policymakers need to make a difference.”

Times staff writers Charlie Frago and Mark Puente contributed to this report.

• • •

Coverage of local and national protests from the Tampa Bay Times

HOW TO SUPPORT: Whether you’re protesting or staying inside, here are ways to educate yourself and support black-owned businesses.

WHAT PROTESTERS WANT: Protesters explain what changes would make them feel like the movement is successful.

WHAT ARE POLICE USING? A guide to non-lethal and less-lethal weapons used in local, national protests.

WHAT ARE ARRESTED PROTESTERS CHARGED WITH? About half the charges filed have included unlawful assembly.

WHY DO POLICE CLASH WITH PROTESTERS? We looked at law enforcement rules. They urge de-escalation but only to a point.

HEADING TO A PROTEST? How to protect eyes from teargas, pepper spray and rubber bullets.

SOME NEW, SOME LONGTIME FAVORITES: Here are 15 black-owned restaurants and food businesses in Tampa Bay