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Amid protests, Tampa quickens the pace on reform

Three weeks of protests have brought long-discussed initiatives back into play.
Yvette Lewis, center, President Hillsborough Branch of the NAACP, says Tampa is finally moving on initiatives that she has advocated for years, at least in part because of recent street protests about police brutality and racial injustice.
Yvette Lewis, center, President Hillsborough Branch of the NAACP, says Tampa is finally moving on initiatives that she has advocated for years, at least in part because of recent street protests about police brutality and racial injustice. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]
Published Jun. 18, 2020

TAMPA — For years, activists had pushed for them with meager results.

But since mass protests against the killing of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody swept Tampa beginning in late May, several reform initiatives related to police and beyond have begun moving.

Earlier this month, Mayor Jane Castor announced the city would restructure a bond issue to pay for 650 body cameras for police officers, an initiative that weeks before had fallen victim to the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus.

Last week, City Council members voted unanimously to begin shutting down two Community Redevelopment Areas — Downtown and the Channel District — that by general consensus hadn’t fit the state law requirement of “blight” in years. Millions of dollars in tax revenue captured in those districts would be funneled toward poorer areas of the city in a plan articulated by Council member Bill Carlson.

Previously, the downtown redevelopment area had been seen as a possible revenue source for a new ballpark for the Tampa Bay Rays.

And next week, the City Council is poised to consider arguments to reform the city’s Citizen Review Board, an oversight panel that has been criticized by some for not having enough power to curb police abuses.

That’s no coincidence, said Yvette Lewis, presidents of the Hillsborough chapter of the NAACP.

“I don’t think they would have done anything had it not been for the people marching and protesting and rallying and holding elected officials accountable and saying enough is enough,” Lewis said.

The decision to refinance three existing bond obligations to pay for the 650 cameras was unrelated to the unrest, Castor told the Tampa Bay Times in early June when she reversed an April announcement to delay the purchase because of anticipated economic shortfalls.

Related: Tampa's body cam program resuscitated

This week, Castor spokeswoman Ashley Bauman said the decision was made because: “Transparency is paramount.”

Carlson said the council’s June 11 vote, sitting as the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency, was done in response to the momentum created by the protests.

“The protests showed the community is ready for change,” Carlson said. “Two of the big themes protesters are talking about are civil rights and economic equity.”

Although the exact amount is still unknown, gradually “sunsetting” the two redevelopment areas would free up millions that could be used to spur development and reduce poverty in neighborhoods in East and West Tampa, Carlson said.

Carlson hopes to get another initiative off the ground in the coming weeks: an economic advisory group that would seek ways to reduce inequality in Florida’s third-largest city.

The Castor administration proposed merging the committee into an existing resiliency and sustainability task force at the council’s June 4 meeting, an idea rejected at a recent meeting by Carlson. He’s waiting to negotiate with Castor’s staff on other options.

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Another issue that has surfaced recently is reforming the city’s Citizen Review Board, formed in 2015 after a Times investigation revealed black bicyclists were being disproportionately ticketed. Activists plan to address council at its June 25 meeting about potential changes, including giving the majority of appointments to council members instead of the mayor.

Kelly Benjamin, an activist involved in the effort to created the board, said it lacks teeth. He would like to see the board have independent investigatory powers, a role in officer hiring and the ability to investigate civilian complaints. All of those ideas seem more attainable after the national discussion going on during the past several weeks, he said.

“That wouldn’t happen if we didn’t see people in the streets in Tampa, record breaking numbers of people in the streets,” Benjamin said.

And those discussions will likely continue throughout the summer as Castor presents her budget to council members.

“There are definitely going to be some very interesting conversations coming up,” he said.

• • •

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 NON-LETHAL AND LESS-LETHAL WEAPONS? A guide to what’s used in local and national protests.

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

CAN YOU BE FIRED FOR PROTESTING? In Florida, you can. Learn more.

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

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