Just before the Tampa City Council took up one of its most explosive issues in years Thursday — creating a panel of citizens to review police actions — there was an unlikely Mayberry moment.
A police officer who patrols tough neighborhoods stood up to be honored as Officer of the Month. One by one, local businesses presented her with gifts of appreciation: restaurant dinners, a limo ride, a toy police car, cookies, free cable, a hotel stay, even a bouquet of flowers for her spouse. (Okay, her spouse happened to be a woman, so maybe a little more modern than Mayberry.)
Then it was on to a city's urban reality, and the packed house there to push for an independent board of residents to review closed internal affairs cases involving police pursuits or use of force.
This city's all too political battle over establishing a Citizens Review Board comes at a pivotal time for law enforcement. These days in America, controversial police encounters are caught on cellphone video. Departments debate body cameras. Police say they are unfairly under siege. In Tampa came recent rumblings that some Officer of the Month awards might even be handed back in protest.
Power plays and legal entanglements here have muddled efforts to set up a citizen review panel, the kind that exists in other Florida cities, by the way. Mayor Bob Buckhorn leapfrogged over the City Council to set one up his way — nine appointments for him, only two for them — resisting one pick per council member or a compromise that still gives him the majority. The ensuing dustup did not do much for a sense of cooperation and respect amongst elected officials on a serious issue.
Thursday, people wanting to be heard stretched into the lunch hour. They spoke of a board that would surely be toothless in its current makeup. They referred to a Times investigation that showed Tampa police wrote more tickets to people riding bicycles than Miami, Orlando, Jacksonville and St. Petersburg police combined, and 80 percent of those bicyclists were black. (Those tickets have dropped under the new chief, Eric Ward.) Some picked up on the earlier speech by the Officer of the Month, who said she explained to her little boy that the back of her patrol car is where she puts bad guys in timeout.
"I think it's time to put the bad cops on timeout, also," a speaker said.
Finally, finally in all of this, City Council members seemed to be getting on track. They talked not of power plays and legalities but of a sit-down between the council chairman and mayor, of sensible options that could give them more say on who sits on the board. But even as they were making progress, a chant erupted from the audience: "No compromise! No compromise!"
While frustration is understandable, this did not help, calling for a hard line when council members were working toward the best option under the rules at hand.
After a breather, the City Council came up with a workable plan: They would agree with the rules of the mayor's board but leave open the matter of who appoints how many until Chairman Frank Reddick's meeting — his olive branch, someone put it — with Buckhorn. At the end of the day Buckhorn himself said he'd be open to more picks for the council.
Good. Because on this, it's too important not to compromise.