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Federal report: Tampa police bike tickets burden blacks, have no benefit

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn talks to reporters about the Department of Justice investigation of Tampa Police Department's bicycle stop and ticketing program Tuesday at the Office of the United States Attorney Middle District of Florida in Tampa. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Published Apr. 27, 2016

TAMPA — For years, the Tampa Police Department wrote thousands of tickets to black bicyclists and stopped countless more in the name of fighting crime.

The tactic didn't work, according to a report released Tuesday by the Department of Justice's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services.

It didn't reduce crime. It didn't stop bicycle crashes or curb bicycle theft.

All it did was "burden" black bicyclists.

"Though these stops were intended to reduce problems in areas with high crime rates, which were mostly black, the disproportionate citing of African-American bicyclists was unfair and, even if not intended as harassment, often perceived as such," COPS office director Ronald Davis wrote in the 72-page report.

The report made 22 recommendations to Tampa police, including:

• Reducing bike stops.

• More carefully documenting the reasons for bike stops and the ethnicity of those involved in a bike stop.

• Greater monitoring of racial disparities.

• Greater community engagement to explain why policies are being pursued.

The report said supervisors should audit tickets, a citizen advisory committee should provide feedback and the department should continue to collect and analyze data to evaluate whether programs disproportionately affect communities.

The department should also pursue an analysis of racial bias in vehicle stops, the report said.

Davis said the disparities found in Tampa are not unique to it, and that he will distribute the report to 17,000 law enforcement agencies across the nation.

"This is a very powerful moment," Davis said. "A department can learn from the data how better to deploy their resources ... Tampa can be the model."

Mayor Bob Buckhorn and Tampa police Chief Eric Ward addressed the report Tuesday. Both pledged to implement the recommendations. Some changes are already underway.

"While there were disparities, and we recognize and acknowledge that, there was no discriminatory practice," said Buckhorn, who added that many residents of high-crime neighborhoods appreciate police efforts to reduce crime.

"I am never going to apologize for being aggressive in the crime fight. It's just not going to happen," the mayor said. "I don't think it warrants an apology. I do think it warrants corrective action."

The mayor and former Chief Jane Castor requested the review in response to a 2015 Tampa Bay Times investigation revealing that Tampa police ticketed more people than the state's four other largest cities combined, and that eight out of 10 bicyclists ticketed were black.

In response to the investigation, bicycle tickets drastically decreased and the mayor created a citizen board to review police actions.

"We are not a perfect police department," Buckhorn said Tuesday. "There is no such thing as a perfect police department."

The findings

A team of statisticians, academics and other policing experts had access to data not available to the Times, notably stops that did not result in a ticket. Bike stops resulted in "stark racial disparities," according to the report.

Between Jan. 1, 2014 and Aug. 30, 2015, Tampa police documented 9,121 bicycle stops. Though blacks make up about a quarter of the city's population, they accounted for 7 out of every 10 bike stops.

Among those stopped, black bicyclists were more likely to get a ticket than white bicyclists.

This disparity disappeared after the Times investigation, researchers said, when Tampa police mandated that all bike stops be documented as "street checks."

Blacks were not stopped more because they ride bicycles more, the report also found.

Though researchers didn't have detailed data on ridership in Tampa, they reasoned bike crash data would predict the racial distribution of bicyclists in an area.

Whites made up 49 percent of bicyclists involved in injury crashes, but accounted for 26 percent of bike stops. Blacks accounted for 40 percent of bike crashes, but were stopped 73 percent of the time.

The neighborhoods with the highest number of bike crashes are not the ones with the highest number of bicycle stops, the report found.

The same was true in places with the most stolen bicycles, the report said. Bikes were rarely recovered from these stops. In 15 months, police recovered 19 stolen bikes — one for every 280 stops.

After the Times investigation, police sharply decreased their bike stops, but that did not result in an increase in bike crashes, bike theft, or serious crime.

The team did not review the police department's "productivity ratio," which the Times found had, for years, incentivized heavy ticketing. But Ward said the metric had already been retooled to de-emphasize ticketing and give credit for community-building behavior.

The reaction

Last year, after the city announced the COPS office would handle the review, some questioned whether it would lead to meaningful impact; unlike the DOJ's Civil Rights Division, which has the power to mandate, the COPS office can only make recommendations.

But City Council member Frank Reddick said Tuesday, "This will suffice."

"I do appreciate that they recognized there was a problem," he said, adding that he was happy to hear the office recommended a citizen advisory committee.

He was disappointed, however, that neither the mayor nor the chief apologized for the disparities.

"In order to continue to build a relationship with the African American community, it would not cause harm to say, 'My officers made some mistakes, and we will correct these mistakes to build a bridge with respect for the African-American community.'"

City Council member Lisa Montelione also believed an apology was warranted:

"Anytime that someone is on the receiving end of a question that may upset them, who has done nothing wrong, who now questions their own ability to ride their bike or walk the sidewalks of their own neighborhood ... The individuals who feel they did not deserve the treatment they got should be apologized to."

The American Civil Liberties Union, which was one of a dozen groups that called for a federal investigation last year, issued a statement saying it was "grateful" for the report and "especially pleased with recommendations about increasing public transparency and collecting and reporting data on police stops."

Times staff writers Richard Danielson and Dan Sullivan contributed to this report. Reach Alexandra Zayas at azayas@tampabay.com or @AlexandraZayas

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