TAMPA — A month of nonstop protests against police brutality and racial injustice brought together these groups: the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union and Hillsborough County’s law enforcement leaders.
Their discussions led to the countywide police reforms that were unveiled at a Wednesday news conference.
“When we all sat down at the table, we didn’t have trust in each other,” said Yvette Lewis, president of the NAACP’s Hillsborough County branch. “But when we left that table, it felt better. Did it feel good? It felt better. I was able to sleep.”
Their meeting took place June 18 as protests against police brutality and racial injustice continued across Tampa Bay and the nation in the make of the May 25 death of George Floyd. A Minneapolis police officer is charged with murder in Floyd’s death.
Two weeks ago, the Hillsborough branches of the NAACP and the ACLU challenged the leaders of every law enforcement agency in Hillsborough County to sit down with their members for a candid conversation about the lack of trust between their agencies and the black and Latino communities.
“I then received a call from Sheriff Chad Chronister, and he said, ‘President Lewis, I’m ready,” she said. “The next day I received a call from (Tampa police) Chief Brian Dugan, and he said, ‘President Lewis, I’m ready.’”
One by one, all of the county’s law enforcement leaders agreed to participate: Temple Terrace police Chief Kenneth Albano, Plant City police Chief Ed Duncan, University of South Florida police Chief Chris Daniels, and Darla Portman, president of the Tampa Police Benevolent Association.
Restaurateur Richard Gonzmart offered up his Ybor City haven, the Columbia Restaurant, for the June 18 meeting. It lasted until 1 a.m. the next morning.
The result: Every agency agreed to implement a list of policy changes the community groups brought to the table. And every agency agreed to adopt the same policy language, which would mean nearly all of Hillsborough’s law enforcement officers would follow the same policies (the Florida Highway Patrol is a statewide agency.)
The agreement was announced at a Wednesday news conference held at the Tampa Park Apartments west of Ybor City. Dugan, who has been very visible this week, was also there. On Monday, he talked about the difficulties his officers are having dealing with protesters and cited recent incidents where he said his officers were injured making arrests during non-protest related incidents.
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“The police, we always have everybody’s back and nobody has our back,” he said Monday. “Right now the officers feel like they can’t win. And I would have to agree with them.”
Then on Tuesday night, protestors and activists lined up at the Citizens Review Board, the city’s police oversight board, and called for him to be fired and his agency defunded.
But on Wednesday, the chief was more conciliatory, saying it’s time to listen to the community and avoid the mistakes of the past.
“That’s what we need to figure out, just how does the community feel about it and what changes do they think need to be made,” Dugan said. “I think the problem is law enforcement is driving too many of those conversations, and maybe we need to start listening more so we can get to where we need to be.”
The new policies and promises include a commitment to fund the expanded use of body cameras and dashboard cameras for all law enforcement officers and vehicles in the county. Tampa police will be expanding its camera program, and this month the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office agreed to adopt body cameras.
County law enforcement leaders also agreed to these other measures: explicitly banning choke holds and neck restraints; expanding officer training on de-escalation and crowd control tactics; improving teaching community policing techniques to officers; and training officers to exhaust all non-lethal options when they find themselves in volatile situations.
The leaders also agreed to strengthen policies requiring officers to intervene when they witness a colleague using excessive force, and require them to file a report about what they saw.
Perhaps the most difficult conversation of the night, Lewis said, was when all the agencies agreed to forgo investigating their own officer-involved shootings and “in-custody” deaths.
Instead, they will ask the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to take over those investigations into their own officers and publicize the results. But the groups must work with Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren’s office and the state agency itself to figure out how that will work.
The county’s law enforcement personnel will also undergo implicit bias training — developed with help from the local NAACP and ACLU — every year from now on instead of every four years as required by the state, Chronister said. The participants plan to meet again on July 22, and agreed to continue meeting once a month until all the reforms are fully implemented, Chronister said. Then the meetings might be held quarterly.
Lewis also criticized Tampa’s Citizens Review Board, calling it an “embarrassment to the city of Tampa and the community” and one that was “designed for failure by the past administration.” She called on Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, the city’s former chief of police, to relinquish control of the review board and instead hand the reins over to City Council.
Community activist Connie Burton said she welcomed the agreement, but said years of systemic racism and mistrust will take time to dismantle.
“Our job while we are at this table is to make sure we beat down every systematic practice that works against us,” she said. “So while I’m here, and I’m grateful to see these changes, I always say put your money where your mouth is.”