TAMPA — Flanked by top union officials, police Chief Jane Castor told the City Council on Thursday she "vehemently" disagrees with a Tampa Bay Times investigation questioning why black riders have gotten 80 percent of bike tickets written by police.
That said, Castor said her agency's ability to do its job is based on trust. That's why she asked the U.S. Department of Justice's Community Policing Office to do an independent review of Tampa's bike enforcement efforts.
"I don't apologize for the proactive nature of our officers," she said. But, "Police officers' power and authority comes from the trust of the citizens that we serve, and if the citizens don't trust that we're going to do the right thing, then we're powerless."
Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union, NAACP and about a dozen other groups applauded the move but called on Tampa to suspend the program immediately until the Justice Department does its review.
"These citations must stop," the ACLU's Joyce Hamilton Henry said, while federal officials examine the program's impact "on the constitutional rights of the people of Tampa as well as the costs of the program, which include community distrust, alienation from the police and the number of young black males who now needlessly have a criminal record."
The Times reported that in the last three years Tampa officers wrote 2,504 bicycle tickets, more than Jacksonville, Miami, St. Petersburg and Orlando combined. The Times said Tampa police target cyclists in poor, black neighborhoods, stopping them for offenses such as not having a bike light or carrying someone on the handle bars, then seize on those minor violations to question and search people.
Castor said she is confident the Justice Department will find that Tampa officers enforce bicycle laws fairly and justly. She also said the agency has given out more than 2,000 bike lights and that cyclists get "many, many more" warnings than tickets.
Castor further defended the department against a generalized perception drawn from the bike citations. Last year, the department issued a total of 101,000 citations of all kinds: motor vehicle, pedestrian and bicycle. Twenty-nine percent of them went to African-Americans, who make up 26 percent of Tampa's population. Of the total, bicycle citations accounted for one-half of 1 percent of the total.
She acknowledged "an inordinate number" of those bicycle citations go to black riders, and "that's what we're going to look at, if there's an issue with that particular enforcement."
Along with reaching out to the Justice Department, Castor said she has met this week with representatives from the NAACP, the ACLU, the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the League of United Latin American Citizens. In those, she said she learned the NAACP regularly hears bicycle-related complaints about police but has not passed them on.
As a result, Castor said the department will have an officer go to the NAACP office once a month to talk to anyone who wants to raise an issue about something going on in the community.
Council members welcomed the independent review but still brought up several concerns.
Chairman Frank Reddick, who represents East Tampa and part of West Tampa, said he paused when he read that only one bicyclist each was ticketed on Bayshore Boulevard and Davis Islands last year, and that each was black.
"That raises your eyebrows as an African-American," said Reddick, who said he got more than a half-dozen calls Sunday after the Times article appeared.
"I just don't want it to be that just because someone is African-American and is living in a high-crime area … that they stand the risk of being stopped and questioned," he said.
"I couldn't agree with you more," said Castor, who said officers are deployed based on the amount of crime in the area they patrol, and that they are tasked with knowing the people, the geography, the crime patterns and the repeat offenders in each neighborhood so they can make sound judgment calls in their encounters with residents.
Asked about the comments of judges who have questioned the department's ticket policy, Castor said she appreciates their perspective, but she said their neighborhoods may not have the same "quality of life" as those where her officers work.
"I'm not certain that the judges have had a homicide on their street and they haven't had to hit the floor when they heard bullets" fired outside their homes, she said.
Council member Lisa Montelione said officers shouldn't be evaluated on how many citations they write.
"We have no quota system," Castor said. "Their performance is gauged on their response to the particular neighborhoods that they're in."