When a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd on May 25, the response in Tampa Bay was the same as it was across the country: People took to the streets.
The Black Lives Matter movement was at the forefront of the months of protests against racial injustice and police brutality that followed across the country. Demonstrators marched and chanted and blocked traffic. They demanded police reforms, and the reallocation of police funds to address such ills as poverty, homelessness, addiction and mental health.
So what changed in Tampa Bay in the wake of the 2020 protests? Turns out, quite a bit.
No police agencies were defunded. But bay area law enforcement leaders instituted several reforms. Four of Pinellas County’s largest police agencies decided to equip officers with body-worn cameras. The way agencies investigate their own officers for using force changed. So did the way some agencies will handle someone’s mental health crisis.
The latest disagreement between protesters and police leaders is over who gets credit. Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, for example, acknowledged the protests helped drive the conversation about reforms — but insisted his reforms were already in the works.
“So is the information from the community and the discussion and the things that are being brought forward factors and are they influencing decisions? Absolutely,” he said. “But that’s different from the protesters who are wreaking havoc in some places, like taking over intersections. That doesn’t work for me.”
To St. Petersburg activist Jabaar Edmond, that is denying the obvious.
“The reality is we all know marching up and down the streets of St. Pete for 100-plus days had to have an effect,” he said. “That’s what makes the wheels of justice turn.”
Here’s what did change in 2020, what didn’t, and what reforms police leaders are contemplating in 2021:
Clearwater Police Department
THE PROTESTS: Clearwater’s protests and rallies were the most calm in Tampa Bay. About 200 people listened to speakers and music and held up homemade signs at a June 5 rally at Coachman Park. Three days later, Elijah McGill led about 200 marchers through North Greenwood. Then the city manager, police chief, two council members and the sheriff listened to the speeches that followed. Clearwater police Chief Dan Slaughter also publicly condemned the death of Floyd.
WHAT CHANGED: In July, the City Council debated whether to issue body-worn cameras to officers. While some council members believe they weren’t needed because of the police department’s history of conduct and community engagement, others believed the time had come. So did the public. “I’m very proud to call Chief Slaughter our police chief, however Chief Slaughter cannot be everywhere all the time,” resident Eleanor Breland said. “One life is worth more than what it’s going to cost to have the cameras.” Council voted to adopt the technology on Aug. 6, and the agency expects it be up and running this month.
Clearwater also joined Sheriff Bob Gualtieri’s Pinellas County Use of Deadly Force Investigative Task Force, a consortium of local police agencies that will band together to investigate when officers use deadly force in the county.
WHAT DIDN’T: No other policies were changed, and the police department budget was not affected.
WHAT’S NEXT: In February, Clearwater officers will be among the first in the country to undergo the “Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement’' training program offered by the Georgetown Innovative Policing Program. While local police agencies this year emphasized their “duty to intervene” policies — requiring officers to intervene when fellow officers use excessive force or engage in misconduct — the new program teaches officers how to verbally and physically intervene.
Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office
THE PROTESTS: The Sheriff’s Office had far fewer protests in its jurisdiction than Tampa police did and fewer interactions with protesters — and thus received less attention and criticism. Deputies responded to the May 30 unrest in the University area, where rioters threw items and shot fireworks at law enforcement while setting a building on fire. The Sheriff’s Office also responded to protests in Plant City and Riverview a few days later. But those were uneventful.
WHAT CHANGED: Sheriff Chad Chronister announced in June that his agency would no longer investigate its own deputies who fire their weapons. Now the Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigates Hillsborough deputies in shooting incidents, or when someone dies in their custody.
When the protests started, Chronister had already decided to equip his deputies with body cameras. But he said the protests were a factor in his decision to adopt a system that records nearly every interaction a deputy has with the public. The Sheriff’s Office started outfitting 1,000 deputies in August and Chronister said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times that the technology already has “proven to be a great asset to our office by allowing us to show the totality of use of force incidents and the great lengths deputies go through to avoid the use of force.”
This summer, sheriff’s personnel underwent training to reinforce a policy requiring deputies who witness an act of misconduct, such as excessive force, report the incident.
In October, Chronister unveiled the new Behavioral Health Unit, which will connect people to services such as addiction counseling and mental health treatment before they become a law enforcement problem.
WHAT DIDN’T: The sheriff’s budget remained steady. The Hillsborough County Commission actually approved a larger budget, in part to cover the $14 million, five-year body-camera contract.
WHAT’S NEXT: The sheriff didn’t lay out any specific policy goals for 2021. “My goal next year, and every year that I serve as Sheriff, is to make sure every citizen is treated with respect and every encounter my deputies have with citizens is handled appropriately, with an emphasis on de-escalation above all else,” he said.
Pasco County Sheriff’s Office / New Port Richey Police Department
THE PROTESTS: Demonstrations in Pasco County took place less frequently and didn’t draw the kind of crowds or media attention that St. Petersburg and Tampa did. Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco met with community leaders but never publicly discussed the meeting. In July, protest leader Marlowe Jones organized a hearse-led caravan through the Meadow Pointe community in Wesley Chapel in memory of late Civil Rights legend and Congressman John Lewis.
But when protests moved to downtown New Port Richey, tensions with city police grew. Protesters accused officers of targeting them for arrest. Jones has challenged the circumstances of his July 31 arrest after someone attacked a protester. New Port Richey started issuing thousands in fines because protesters used a megaphone downtown. All those complaints were initiated by officers, not residents. But police officials deny targeting protesters.
WHAT CHANGED: In July, the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office announced it would ask the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to take over investigating incidents where deputies fire their weapons.
The New Port Richey City Council in September approved purchasing body and vehicle cameras for the police force. After a year of study, Mayor Rob Marlowe called it “a critical item” in the wake of the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the protests that followed.
“There’s an opportunity and an awareness that now’s a really good time to take a hard look in the mirror on how we interact with the public,” New Port Richey police Chief Kim Bogart said. He also focused on de-escalation techniques and reinforced a policy where officers must intervene when they see fellow officers use excessive force.
WHAT DIDN’T CHANGE: The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office did not list any policy changes when asked by the Times, but noted it has been using body cameras since 2015. The agency also has a team that connects those in need with programs that address mental health, drug addiction and homelessness.
WHAT’S NEXT: Black Lives Matter Pasco County continues to hold protests in downtown New Port Richey. Bogart said he’ll watch to see how other cities use social workers to handle low-level calls instead of officers.
“It’s going to have to involve dialogue, open-minded discussions,” he said. “I keep telling my officers, in the next two to three years, you will see that our profession has changed.”
Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office
THE PROTESTS: Pinellas deputies mainly backed up St. Petersburg officers handling protests in that city. But Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, one of the most prominent law enforcement leaders in the country, still found ways to make headlines.
The sheriff asked the Pinellas-Pasco chief judge in June to order that protesters arrested in the early days of the protests be held overnight without bail, even if the charges didn’t warrant that. The chief judge agreed — but backtracked when the American Civil Liberties Union and others criticized the practice.
The sheriff called out the Tampa Bay Rays in July after the team’s official Twitter account called for the arrests of the Louisville police officers who killed Breonna Taylor in her apartment on March 13 while executing a no-knock warrant. Gualtieri called the Rays’ tweet “just wrong” and “reckless.” Louisville officials have since banned no-knock warrants, paid a $12 million settlement to her family and recently informed two officers involved in her death that they could be fired.
WHAT CHANGED: The sheriff implemented significant changes but said the summer of protests had little to do with his decisions. Gualitieri, who had long resisted body cameras, told the Times in August he was exploring the idea. He will soon ask the Pinellas County Commission to fund the $3 million program and expects his 800 deputies to be equipped by March.
Gualitieri also spearheaded forming the Pinellas County Use of Deadly Force Investigative Task Force. Before, each law enforcement agency investigated their own officers in cases where they fired their weapons or used force. Now that job falls to the task force while the officer’s agency is removed from the process, which the sheriff said eliminates possible conflicts of interest. “It’s time to change,” Gualtieri told the Times.
A few weeks later, Gualtieri announced the expansion of his mental health unit from two to six deputy-social worker teams.
WHAT DIDN’T: The Sheriff’s Office was not defunded. In fact, the roughly $328 million budget was 4 percent bigger than the previous year.
WHAT’S NEXT: Gualtieri said the protests showed him that he and his agency need to do a better job communicating with the community. He plans to start publishing an annual report with information including crime and use-of-force statistics and new programs.
St. Petersburg Police Department
THE PROTESTS: Demonstrations were consistent and peaceful as protesters marched for more than 100 days after Floyd’s death. The most sustained tensions were at the first gatherings outside police headquarters, when dozens were arrested for failing to disperse. Most of the charges were dropped.
In other incidents, a counter-protester pulled a handgun on marchers, there were arrests outside the mayor’s home and some tense encounters with drivers. But most of the marches were uneventful, and many ended with dance parties outside City Hall.
Demonstrators demanded a 30 percent cut in the police budget and that mental health, domestic abuse and drug overdose calls be handled by non-law enforcement experts.
WHAT CHANGED: In July, the city announced a new team of social workers would respond to reports of drug overdoses, mental health crises, homelessness and truancy instead of officers. Police chief Anthony Holloway denied, though, that the new Community Assistance Liaison program was created in response to protester demands. “We realized that we’re a very young police department, and we need professionals to deal with some of the things we’re dealing with,” he said.
Days later, the police department joined the Pinellas County Use of Deadly Force Investigative Task Force.
The most significant change came in October, when the City Council approved spending nearly $7 million to equip police officers and vehicles with cameras. Holloway spent six years studying the idea, and announced in February 2020 that he now supported the idea — months before the protests started. The rollout started in December.
WHAT DIDN’T: No police funds were re-allocated to social services. The City Council approved a $117 million police budget for the new fiscal year, a rise of nearly 1 percent from the previous budget.
WHAT’S NEXT: Some community members were dismayed when the Community Assistance Liaison program wasn’t running by October. It is now slated to start early this year. The rollout of body cameras will be finished in weeks and vehicle cameras should be fully installed by the end of 2021.
Tampa Police Department
THE PROTESTS: Tampa was the epicenter for the most intense encounters between protesters and police in the bay area. May 30 saw rioting, looting and vandalism in the University area. What followed were months of peaceful, but periodically tense and chaotic incidents. Protesters and activists accused Tampa police of being too quick to arrest people and use unnecessary force such as chemical agents and rubber bullets.
Tampa protesters faced the most danger from drivers. Protest leader Jae Passmore was hit by a pickup truck driver on June 21 but prosecutors didn’t file charges because they could not definitively identify the driver. A driver who went through protesters blocking a road on June 27 ended up speeding away with protester Jason Flores clinging to the hood. Police arrested Flores, not the driver, but the charges were dropped. Police arrested protesters blocking N Dale Mabry Highway on the Fourth of July — and later arrested a 21-year-old driver accused of driving through them.
Police Chief Brian Dugan became a lightning rod of criticism and activists repeatedly called for him to be fired. Dugan said he supports the Black Lives Matter movement but defended his officers. Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren dropped many charges against protesters arrested for unlawful assembly, saying his office would make a “clear distinction” between peaceful protesters and those who incite violence. The chief criticized his decision, saying the courts should decide. “The police, we always have everybody’s back and nobody has our back,” he told the media in June.
WHAT CHANGED: Mayor Jane Castor, a former police chief, created a Task Force on Community Policing. She and Dugan announced two immediate changes: codifying that officers must seek the approval of the chief and a judge to use a no-knock warrant and reassigning 40 officers to neighborhood districts. The chief also had the Florida Department of Law Enforcement take over investigating fatal police shootings and in-custody deaths.
This year Tampa police completed equipping officers with body cameras. And the department recently hired an outside training company to hold sessions on diversity, community engagement and awareness. Dugan said more training on fair and impartial policing is set for 2021.
WHAT DIDN’T: Activists have called the city’s Citizen Review Board, which provides oversight to the police department, toothless and ineffective. They want the City Council to take control of appointments from the mayor and they want the board to be given subpoena power and independent investigators. Castor put forward her own proposal that includes none of those changes. The mayor also rejected calls to cut the police budget and supported Dugan throughout the year.
WHAT’S NEXT: The fight over the Citizen Review Board will likely continue. A workshop on Castor’s proposed changes is set for Feb. 25.