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If Tampa creates civilian review board for police, it might not be on council's terms

TAMPA — Mayor Bob Buckhorn said Wednesday that if City Hall sets up a civilian board to review police actions, it might not take shape as envisioned by the City Council.

"Is there room for improvement? Sure," Buckhorn said in an interview at his office. "Is more transparency a good thing? Absolutely."

But the mayor said the "path that we could go down" would be a "middle ground that's not going to subject our police officers to a kangaroo court but at the same time can give advice to the chief and advice to the administration as to issues that are out there."

But first, he said, there needs to be a "clarification of the roles."

He expects City Attorney Julia Mandell will soon issue an opinion that under Tampa's strong-mayor form of government, the decision whether to establish such a panel belongs to the mayor, not the City Council.

"It's our interpretation that the charter does not give City Council the authority to do this," he said. "We think the charter's very clear on that."

So what Buckhorn said he has agreed to do, "at the council's request," is to look at cities all over the country that have such advisory committees and get back to the council with his findings.

Some cities with such boards are under consent decrees — a form of government intervention aimed at bringing about changes to institutions such as law enforcement agencies — with the U.S. Justice Department, which Tampa is not, he said.

"Certainly the model in St. Pete has worked for a number of years," Buckhorn said. There, the city established its board after disturbances in the 1990s. Members picked by the mayor review how well internal affairs cases were investigated and make recommendations to the police chief.

If created, Tampa's board "will be advisory in nature," Buckhorn said. "There's an appropriate place for citizen input — not in terms of running the Police Department, because that's not going to happen — but I think citizen input and community input on procedures and policies and perceptions can be helpful."

Asked whether he would expect the City Council to appoint members to the board, Buckhorn said, "I don't know."

"In most of the others that we've looked at — certainly in St. Pete — they're appointed by the mayor," he said. "The membership of the committee would be important. I would never put folks on there who would have their own agendas or who hated the police. That would not be productive. We need serious people who are engaged in serious work."

City Council Chairman Frank Reddick said Buckhorn should stop worrying about who has the authority and focus on finding a way to "give citizens an independent voice."

"The time is right for this community to have a review board that is not appointed by the mayor and not appointed by the police chief," Reddick said. He has proposed that each of the seven council members appoint one member, the mayor should appoint two and the police chief should appoint two. He can see members getting some police training so they better understand the department.

Buckhorn would be "making a grave mistake, a very unwise mistake, if he doesn't include the City Council in this process," Reddick said.

"We're not looking to micromanage the Police Department," he said. "We're there to try to build a stronger relationship between the community and the Police Department. It has to be a relationship where we're working together."

Last week, more than two dozen people, including representatives of the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Florida Council of Churches, told the City Council that Tampa needs a civilian review board because of police work that unfairly and disproportionately targets poor and minority neighborhoods.

Police Chief Eric Ward said he was researching review panels in other cities. The council asked him to return for more discussion on Sept. 3.

"I think you're seeing these because of what's going on around the country, not necessarily here in Tampa," Buckhorn said.

He noted that President Barack Obama's Task Force on 21st-Century Policing has endorsed the idea that some form of civilian oversight of law enforcement can strengthen trust with the community and has recommended that agencies establish review boards with sworn staff and community members to review cases with the potential to undermine civilian confidence in law enforcement.

Still, Buckhorn said, "I'm not going to create a Tampa solution that's driven by a Ferguson scenario. … We're just trying to find a model that potentially works in Tampa for Tampa's situation, which is very different than some of the stuff that we're seeing on TV.''

Contact Richard Danielson at rdanielson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times.

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