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Are Tampa police violating civil rights law with bicycle stops?

Tampa City Council Chairman Frank Reddick called Monday for an investigation into whether the Tampa Police Department is violating civil rights law with its long-standing practice of targeting poor, black neighborhoods for bicycle tickets.

Reddick said he wants police Chief Jane Castor and Mayor Bob Buckhorn to publicly answer questions about how officers are handing out tickets.

Reddick's call was in response to a Tampa Bay Times report on Sunday that revealed police have been using bicycle law as an excuse to stop, question and search riders in high-crime neighborhoods.

As a result, black residents have gotten 79 percent of all tickets written, even though they make up only a quarter of the population.

"First, I want to get to the bottom of it," Reddick said. "Why are they targeting certain African-American communities? The only one that can tell me that is the chief of police.

"I think the report is very embarrassing for the city," Reddick said. "It's very embarrassing to the African-American community, and I'm very embarrassed by it."

Two legal experts contacted by the Times say the disparity in bike tickets is strong evidence of a violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which forbids practices that have a disproportionate impact on minorities.

"This is affecting minority individuals almost exclusively," said Sam Brooke, deputy legal director of the Economic Justice Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center. "The question is why? Why are you doing that? There's got to be a good reason."

Brooke and other experts said police don't have to have a racist intent for there to be a violation.

In addition, it's not enough to argue that such police tactics are curbing crime, the experts said.

"The major thing they're going to claim is they're conducting this because it's a high-crime area," said Judith Scully, a law professor at Stetson University. "But police departments very cavalierly refer to high-crime areas as an excuse for all sort of behavior."

It would be up to the Justice Department to investigate and determine if there is a civil rights violation.

The most likely review would come under Title VI, which applies to any agency that gets federal funds. Those agencies stand to lose their federal dollars if they are found in violation.

Often agencies settle with the Justice Department and agree to reforms.

Justice Department officials have not responded to calls for comment.

Chief Castor has defended her officers' use of bike stops in high-crime neighborhoods.

"Many individuals receiving bike citations are involved in criminal activity," she said. "We have an obligation to address the individual issues that plague each neighborhood."

On Monday, she downplayed concerns. "The Tampa Police Department's bike enforcement is based on violations of state statute," Castor wrote in a statement.

Also on Monday, officials with the American Civil Liberties Union said they were conducting an analysis of data used in the Times' investigation to determine whether or not they will file a lawsuit.

"Racial disparities of this magnitude are extremely disturbing," said Nusrat Jahan Choudhury, staff attorney with ACLU's Racial Justice Program. "They're suggestive of racial profiling and the targeting of black people not because of what they've done or evidence of wrongdoing but because of how they look and how they're perceived."

Both the mayor's office and the public defender's office said they too are reviewing the data on bike tickets.

Public Defender Julianne Holt, who has long had concerns about the way bike law is used to arrest juveniles for other crimes, said she plans to meet with the city's new police chief when one is appointed.

Castor retires next month.

Mayor Buckhorn has not commented on the Times' findings.

The Times found that the Tampa Police Department issues more bike tickets than any other agency in Florida, for offenses including riding at night with no light and carrying a rider on the handlebars. Some riders have been stopped more than a dozen times through the years; some have been ticketed three times in one day.

The Times' investigation found that officers are encouraged to aggressively enforce bike violations to make contact with "potential criminals" and root out greater offenses. One 2007 initiative was titled "Bicycle Blitzkrieg."

Council member Mike Suarez said he was disturbed by the account of a man whose bike was taken away because he could not produce a receipt.

He said he backs the department's proactive approach to attacking small crimes before they balloon into something bigger, but thinks police may need more training.

Council member Lisa Montelione said she worries the department is undermining relationships in the same neighborhoods in which detectives need the public's help in solving a recent spate of shootings.

"The disparity is something that I'm ashamed of," Montelione said. "I don't like to think that this is what we're calling community policing. When judges start seeing patterns and are chastising police officers, you've got a problem. You've got to build relationships with the community," she said.

"This is not the way."

Times staff writer Richard Danielson contributed to this report. Contact Kameel Stanley at (727) 893-8643 or kstanley@tampabay.com. Contact Alexandra Zayas at (727) 893-8413 or azayas@tampabay.com.

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