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Pressured from the outside, Bob Buckhorn creates Citizens Review Board for Tampa police

“We can always do better,” said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn.
“We can always do better,” said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn.
Published Dec. 16, 2015

TAMPA — Pushed by black residents, civil rights groups and an assertive City Council, Mayor Bob Buckhorn on Friday created a Citizens Review Board to recommend ways to improve police relationships with the community it serves.

"We can always do better," Buckhorn said. "We have heard the voices at City Council, and we respect those voices. But we are going to create a solution that works for us, not that works for some other outside group."

That means the council will not get to appoint most of the board's members, nor will the board have the subpoena power activists demand.

Tampa police Chief Eric Ward said the 11-member advisory panel could review how his department handled incidents involving the use of force or pursuits, as well as general practices and policies.

"Our goal, moving forward, is to strengthen relationships with the community," Ward said. "This review board is just one piece of the puzzle."

Buckhorn signed an executive order creating the panel after City Attorney Julia Mandell concluded that the city charter gives the mayor, as the city official in charge of the Police Department, the authority to do so.

The mayor will appoint nine of the board's members and the City Council two. Members must be 18, live or own a business in the city, complete the Police Department's Citizens Academy and spend nine hours on "ride-alongs" with officers.

Members cannot be political candidates or office holders, city employees, law enforcement officers, relatives of Tampa police employees or have any convictions for felonies or crimes involving moral turpitude.

Buckhorn's announcement came less than a week before Ward is due to give the council a report on the idea of creating such a board.

An Aug. 6 council discussion drew more than two dozen speakers who contended police unfairly target poor and black neighborhoods. Supporting the idea were local chapters of the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union, Florida Council of Churches and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR.)

Buckhorn said the new board, modeled on St. Petersburg's, is tailored to the city's needs because Tampa "is a long way from a lot of these other cities that we're reading about now."

Still, the idea gained momentum in a public discussion after a Tampa Bay Times report in April that Tampa police wrote more tickets for bicycle infractions than St. Petersburg, Orlando, Jacksonville and Miami combined, with 80 percent of tickets going to black cyclists.

Since then, police have written fewer tickets than any summer in more than a decade, and the city asked the U.S. Justice Department's community policing office to review its practices.

While Buckhorn hopes to have the board up and running by December, City Council chairman Frank Reddick said he has not given up on the idea that the council should have more say over its organization, membership and operation.

"Totally unacceptable," Reddick said. "What he's done today will not result in an independent review board."

City Council attorney Martin Shelby has indicated he thinks the council does have the authority to establish a citizens advisory board. If there still is disagreement Thursday between Shelby's and Mandell's interpretations of the charter, Reddick said he would seek an opinion from outside counsel, even if he has to pay for it himself.

An activist likewise said Buckhorn's board would be "useless and not effective."

"It's not independent, it doesn't have subpoena power, it can't hold hearings, it only gets cases after they've been adjudicated, and it doesn't have resources to do its job," said Laila Abdelaziz, CAIR-Florida's legislative and government affairs director.

Earlier Friday, CAIR released a plan for a board dramatically different than Buckhorn's.

The City Council would appoint most of its members, with the board reflecting "the racial, gender, ethnic, national origin, religious, linguistic, sexual orientation, socioeconomic, homelessness and age composition of the city of Tampa population most often subjected to inquiries, stops and arrests by police officers."

Activists also would have the board involved in hiring decisions and investigations where officers could be subpoenaed.

Police do important work, Abdelaziz said, but problems stemming from policies like criminal forfeiture and the federal war on drugs are making communities nationwide realize "that we can't trust police officers to police themselves."

"Mayor Buckhorn has not heard what the community has been saying," she said. "What we're hearing is the trust is not there, and people feel their rights are being violated because their communities are over-policed."

But Buckhorn said "my responsibility is to the broader community, not to the loudest members of the community." He knows some critics want more say in day-to-day operations of the Police Department.

"That's not happening," he said, "but, you know, it's a victory. It depends on whether you want the whole loaf or half a loaf from their perspective."

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