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Protesters: Reform the Tampa Police Department — or abolish it

The city's Citizen Review Board heard dozens of residents who said Tampa's police force needs serious reform — or abolition.

TAMPA — An overflow crowd came Tuesday to the Tampa Convention Center to demand the city’s police force be defunded or abolished, Mayor Jane Castor relinquish her post and Tampa police Chief Brian Dugan be fired.

The long line of speakers waiting to address the Citizen Review Board — the city’s police oversight board — also disputed the city’s narrative that protestors have been violent. The speakers say it has been officers who have used excessive force against peaceful demonstrators who have been marching against police brutality and racism since May 30.

Castor and Dugan had said the police only acted when crowds grew violent and refused to disperse.

“The time for conversation has passed,” Matthew Yampolsky said. “It’s time to move past this archaic BS and get rid of the cops.”

Many of the speakers attacked Dugan, some calling him a coward, as he sat to the side of the meeting. Several speakers criticized the chief for looking at his cell phone as they called for his removal.

Others criticized Castor, the city’s former police chief and who was not in attendance, saying she was unfit to reform the police department.

Related: How ‘defund the police’ went mainstream, and what that means

Many of the first dozen speakers called for the police department to be defunded or abolished — an idea that has gained attention during the national protests sparked by the May 25 death of George Floyd, who was killed by a Minneapolis police officer.

A common theme of the evening’s first 15 speakers, all of them seemingly in their 20s, was that the Tampa Police Department was beyond reform — at least under its current leadership.

“Personally, I think it’s whack,” said Jeremiah Nichols about the police reform measures Castor announced last week, which includes forming a task force to improve police relations with the community.

Related: Mayor Jane Castor unveils police reform measures

“Who determines who is a community leader? " Nichols asked. “We are the ones getting hurt... We need to be at the helm of the reform. Not even reform, but revolution.”

Several speakers declined to give their names, saying they feared police retaliation.

The city’s Citizen Review Board hasn’t met since January because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The convention center’s meeting area was socially distanced with seats placed 6 feet apart, but a large group crowded at the doorway, ignoring the distancing rules. Almost all wore masks.

Seven of the 11-member board mostly listened to the speakers, who spoke during the meeting’s public comment period.

But the board’s chairman broke in at one point to pledge his solidarity with protesters.

“I applaud all of you ... We’re all in the same boat,” said chair Rasheed Ali Aquil.

“No we’re not,” replied a chorus from the crowd.

Aquil said the young protesters reminded him of himself at their age and that the board would work with them to implement changes.

Related: Police oversight board enteres third year with mixed reviews

Dugan said he wanted everyone to work together and urged residents to join a citizen advisory committee he had formed. They crowd largely jeered and interrupted him. Dugan soon left the meeting.

Later, Rev. Bartholomew Banks, a board member. criticized Dugan’s behavior, saying he shouldn’t have looked at his phone during the meeting and should have stayed.

The review board was formed in 2015, after a Tampa Bay Times investigation revealed Tampa police officers were disproportionately ticketing black bicyclists. Since then, the board has mostly been a low-profile body that reviews police actions without causing much controversy.

But recently, activists have called to reform the board itself and give more control to City Council members, so they can appoint board members and grant the board more investigative independence.

Castor has the power to nominate five voting members and two alternates to the board. The other four members are picked by council members, according to deputy City Clerk Suling Lucas.

Activists want to see the City Council, not the mayor, select the majority of the members.

Another change sought is to allow the board to pick its own cases to review. Right now, board members are provided a list of closed cases to pick from by the police department, Lucas said.

The local chapter of the NAACP and ACLU will hold a news conference Wednesday morning to explain how they want to reform the Citizen Review Board.

Related: Citizen Review Board changes demanded by activists

• • •

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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