Tampa City Council tweaks police oversight board, but can they?

City Attorney Gina Grimes said that Mayor Jane Castor has final say over the proposed changes.
The Tampa City Council discussed changes to the city's Citizen Review Board Thursday for several hours.
The Tampa City Council discussed changes to the city's Citizen Review Board Thursday for several hours. [ Charlie Frago ]
Published Feb. 25, 2021|Updated Feb. 25, 2021

TAMPA — After nearly a year of sometimes intense conflict over the proposed independence of the city’s police oversight board, City Council members Thursday weighed in with crucial changes to Mayor Jane Castor’s proposal.

And then came a legal twist that surprised many council members: any changes they make would have to get Castor’s approval, City Attorney Gina Grimes said.

Council members had just voted to give themselves a majority of appointments — seven — to the 11-person Citizen Review Board.

The mayor, who currently controls a majority of board appointments, would have four choices, including a member from the NAACP. Luis Viera was the only council member to vote against the change. He said he supported council majority of appointments, but didn’t want existing board members kicked off.

Right after the vote, Grimes told them a recent change to the City Charter means any changes are still subject to the mayor’s approval.

That prompted a passionate response from council member Orlando Gudes.

“We have to have separation of powers,” Gudes said. “That’s going to have to be changed.”

Earlier, Gudes, a retired Tampa police officer, said he believes another change is needed: a cultural shift in the police department. Too many officers are ruled by fear, he said, noting that there were many good officers.

“A lot of officers ... don’t have a clue,” he said.

Tossing the paper copy of the proposed ordinance aside, Gudes motioned to it.

“It doesn’t mean a thing if you don’t straighten out the house,” Gudes said.

But he said the time had come to move forward with a compromise.

The dispute over who holds ultimate power over the volunteer board’s composition has animated debate in the city since the board was created in 2015, after a Tampa Bay Times report revealed Tampa police had disproportionately ticketed black bicyclists.

At that time, former mayor Bob Buckhorn clashed with then-chairman Frank Reddick and others about who would control the board’s makeup.

Council members said they were confident they could reach an agreement with Castor before the proposed overhaul of the board comes back before them on May 20. Council member John Dingfelder said his interpretation of the charter was clear: City Council is the legislative body and doesn’t need the mayor’s approval.

Council members also unanimously directed city attorneys to begin work on a 2022 charter amendment to allow the board to hire an independent lawyer.

They also voted unanimously to allow someone arrested for a misdemeanor to be appointed to the board or continue to serve, provided they would to take a leave of absence until the matter is resolved.

But they decided to wait to ask the voters’ opinion on giving limited subpoena powers to the board, another change advocated by the ACLU and activists.

Dingfelder, who proposed the charter amendments and misdemeanor fix, made clear he wasn’t looking to subpoena police officers, who are exempt under a state law and subsequent 2017 state Supreme Court ruling.

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He later withdrew his motion on subpoena power when it became clear he didn’t have the votes, but he said voters should have the final say.

“It’s all about the search for the truth. We have to let the voters decide,” Dingfelder said.

The issue of stronger police oversight has been on the front burner in the city since street protests broke out after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody in May.

The ACLU and a coalition of activists have argued that the oversight board needs independent lawyers, investigators and the ability to subpoena non-police witnesses and evidence. One example offered by volunteer attorneys for the ACLU on Thursday was video from a home surveillance system.

Police union officials contested those changes, saying law enforcement already faces multiple levels of local, state and federal scrutiny. Viera pointed out the Castor has recently equipped police with body cameras and formalized bans on choke holds and no-knock warrants. Last year, the mayor also said the Florida Department of Law Enforcement would investigate all incidents where police shot civilians.

The council debate took place after about two hours of public testimony by more than three dozen people — with a majority in favor of reforming the panel.

Yvette Lewis, president of the Hillsborough chapter of the NAACP, said change was needed to correct historic discrimination and poor treatment of Black people at the hands of police.

“We African Americans did not start this fight with (the Tampa Police Department.) The injustice started within their house.”

Jeff Hawks of the Community Patriots, who said he represented thousands of residents, called out council members Citro and Dingfelder by name, saying they needed to remember sometimes tense and violent protests in South Tampa and support the police.

“It’s time you represented all of the citizens,” Hawks said.

Angel D’Angelo, who has been active in protests against police misconduct, said the reform proposed by the ACLU “barely scratches the surface of what we need.”

Those who didn’t agree were “guardians of oppression,” D’Angelo said.

In the end, council members said the discussions had gone on long enough. Decisions needed to be made.

“It’s going to bring out a heck of a lot more transparency within our city,” Citro said.

• • •

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