TAMPA — Hillsborough prosecutors will not bring formal charges against 67 people who were arrested in recent protests in Tampa.
State Attorney Andrew Warren announced in a Monday news conference that his office would decline to prosecute those who were arrested on allegations of unlawful assembly. He said he would also work to expunge records of the arrests.
“In each of those 67 arrests, the evidence shows the person arrested was peacefully protesting,” Warren said. “There was no violence. There was no vandalism. There was no attack on a law enforcement officer.”
Warren did make a distinction, though, between those who were arrested for unlawful assembly and more than 100 others arrested since May 30 on a range of other charges. Those accused of battering police, vandalizing property, inciting riots, or other crimes still face prosecution.
Like most other places throughout the nation, the Tampa Bay area has seen daily protests in the last two weeks over the death of George Floyd, a black man who died at the hands of police in Minneapolis.
While most local protests have been peaceful, a few early demonstrations were marred by clashes between protesters and police.
On May 30, demonstrations devolved into violence in north Tampa, where vandals hurled objects at officers and set fire to businesses.
The days that followed saw protests in downtown and east Tampa, which were broken up by police using gas canisters and “less lethal” rounds, which have attracted criticism for causing serious injuries and, in some cases, death.
The 67 unlawful assembly arrests occurred in downtown Tampa the night of June 2 and into the early morning June 3. Police officers monitored the group for hours as they marched and chanted in the streets. The march ended abruptly when officers fired gas and began detaining people, including a Tampa Bay Times reporter who was later let go.
Those taken to jail faced a misdemeanor charge. Most were released the next day.
In reviewing the cases, Warren said there was no indication that any of those arrested was doing anything illegal.
“Prosecuting people for exercising their First Amendment rights doesn’t solve problems," Warren said. "It creates them by weakening the bonds that exist between law enforcement and our community and undermining people’s faith in our system.”
Warren said he spoke with local law enforcement leaders and Tampa Mayor Jane Castor before making the announcement. He avoided criticizing the police, saying the decision not to prosecute the cases doesn’t mean the arrests were bad.
“The fact that the arrests were made is a different decision than the one we make as prosecutors about whether to move forward,” he said.
Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan stood by the arrests.
“Although I understand the difficulty in prosecuting those arrested, they were given two warnings after blocking streets,” Dugan said in a statement. “Although taking over intersections can be peaceful, it is still illegal. The Tampa Police Department will continue to work to bring our department and the community together. We remain in solidarity with those who are using their First Amendment right peacefully to speak on injustices.”
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Standing with Warren were Rev. Larry Roundtree, Christopher Harris, and Thomas Scott, all leaders of predominantly African American churches in Tampa. They spoke of having continued discussions with Warren and other elected leaders.
They planned a meeting with elected officials for Monday evening, but said it would not be open to the public.
Roundtree, the pastor of New Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church, called it a “launch pad to a long dialogue” on race issues.
Warren is at least the second state attorney in Florida to decline to press criminal charges related to the protests en masse. Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle recently said her office would not seek charges against people arrested for curfew violations.
Prosecutors in Pinellas and Pasco counties were evaluating individual arrests. So far there have been about 40 misdemeanor arrests, plus nine felony cases, said Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett.
The felonies are likely to still be prosecuted, Bartlett said. They include the case of a man who is accused of hurling an object at St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway.
Brett Becker was one of the 67 people jailed June 3 in Tampa. He noticed the protest downtown shortly after finishing work at a moving company. He soon found himself near the front of the crowd, which he said was loud, but peaceful.
“There was no sense of violence or aggression by anyone,” he said. “They claim there were damages that were done. I didn’t see anything like that.”
Late in the evening, police blocked the crowd from crossing the Brorein Street bridge, Becker said. A recorded announcement told the protesters to leave the area.
They doubled back, eventually marching to the area of N Morgan and E Madison streets. It was there that officers surrounded the crowd, shooting pepper spray and gas. Becker said his impression was that officers simply wanted to end the march.
“Nobody was doing anything wrong, but walking and chanting,” he said.
He spent the night in jail and had to hire a lawyer. He said he thinks prosecutors would have run into problems trying to prove their cases.
He has family members who work in law enforcement, and said he has much respect for police. But after what happened, it’s hard to trust them, he said. He is considering legal action.
“If they want respect, they’re not getting it by doing this to people,” Becker said. “They could’ve peacefully resolved it.”