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Civil rights groups want new police chief to freeze bike ticketing

Terrance Hyman of Tampa Bay Academy of Hope said Thursday that he has students who’ve been stopped by the police.
Terrance Hyman of Tampa Bay Academy of Hope said Thursday that he has students who’ve been stopped by the police.
Published May 1, 2015

TAMPA — Just after Mayor Bob Buckhorn announced the city's new police chief, representatives of social justice organizations gathered in a park across from police headquarters to once again demand officials suspend bike ticketing practices that have led to stark racial disparities.

The advocates said they are encouraged that the mayor tapped Assistant Chief Eric Ward to lead Tampa police after Chief Jane Castor retires next week.

But they said they are not backing away from their demand, first made in a letter last week to the mayor, that the Police Department freeze the practice pending a federal review requested by the city.

Tampa police issue more bike tickets than any other law enforcement agency in Florida. Eight in 10 of them go to black people, a recent Tampa Bay Times investigation found.

"(Ward) must change this policy," said Tampa City Council chairman Frank Reddick, who stood with representatives from groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, the Bay Area Activist Coalition, Council on American-Islamic Relations, League of United Latin American Citizens and Pastors on Patrol.

"We do not want to see our young folks in the African-American community harassed without cause, and we don't want to see them being given tickets. … Hopefully he will take that (and), as a man of his community who grew up in east Tampa, who grew up in the black community, who is a man of his word, he will do the right thing to change this policy."

Reddick also addressed an idea floated this week during a town hall meeting that the City Council withhold confirmation if the new chief does not abandon the bike strategy.

"We will leave that as one of our options, as necessary," Reddick said.

Ward told reporters Thursday that he stands by the agency's bike law enforcement, but welcomes an upcoming review by the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services.

"I think it's a great idea," Ward said, in the name of being "very transparent."

Justice Department officials said they plan to begin their review soon.

"The goal is to identify whether racial disparities exist in the department's stops and the issuance of tickets, determine the reason behind any disparities, and provide recommendations to address such," officials said in a statement.

Federal officials also said they are widening the scope to all traffic citations. It's unclear how long the review may take.

"They average about six months," press secretary Mary Brandenberger said Thursday. "We don't know until we get in there."

The activists who gathered Thursday said the disproportionate bike ticketing is just one of the concerns of the community, but given events around the country, this is the moment to tackle these issues of policing and race.

"This is an issue that has been going on since the '80s," Bruce Haynes, 49, said of the bike stops. "Their motive is having probable cause to search people. I know this for a fact. I lived in College Hill projects all my life."

The Rev. Russell Meyer, executive director of the Florida Council of Churches, said the bike tickets should concern everyone.

"Dragnets focused on certain areas and certain populations are a violation of the rights of all of us," Meyer said. "So all of us have to be concerned when people are being stopped because they are believed to be part of a demographic that is part of crime."

Officials with the Tampa Bay Academy of Hope said they've witnessed the eroding trust that has occurred because of these police practices.

Terrance Hyman, a program director for the nonprofit, said he recently asked a group of about 15 young men from the targeted neighborhoods if they had been stopped by police while on their bicycles.

All but two had. Many said they felt harassed, and a couple told Hyman that police assumed their bikes were stolen because they looked nice.

But none of the youths were willing to share their experience at Thursday's gathering.

"They felt that they would be singled out," Hyman said, "by policemen in the area."