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Problems run deeper than bike tickets, Tampa speakers tell Justice Department panel

TAMPA — Many of the 100 people who showed up for a Justice Department community forum on Tuesday night spoke out against the longtime Tampa police practice of ticketing black bicycle riders far more often than white ones.

The ticketing practice brought about the forum in Ybor City. But many of the speakers said it mainly underscores bigger racial tensions between Tampa police and the public they serve.

"The point that the community has made and echoed is that this issue is not just focused on bikes," said community organizer Crystal Wilson. "I have to tell my children every day that they're children and not criminals. I'm scared to give them bikes."

Matthew Scheider, assistant director of the Department of Justice's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, called it "one of the best community forums I've ever been at."

The topic the people were there to discuss has already been the subject of public meetings and news conferences. In the spring, a Tampa Bay Times investigation found that Tampa police issue more bike citations than any other agency in Florida, and that eight out of 10 go to black people.

Many of the roughly 35 people who spoke talked of a fractured relationship with police, and of a deeply frustrated community that sees itself as a target.

"Once you leave, it's business as usual," said Preston Schofield. "What's to say once you leave, things are going to change?"

Wilson, the community activist, said the issues in Tampa are tied to what's happening around the country.

"Are we truly ready as a nation to deal with it?" she asked.

Joe Robinson, representing the local NAACP chapter, voiced his disappointment that none of the officials on stage were people of color.

"We done lost this already," he said. "This is a race issue."

Twelve-year-old Jourden Moore-Taylor has never gotten a citation while riding his bike. He hasn't seen his friends stopped either.

But the potential for an encounter with the police worries the middle-schooler, one of the youngest citizens to speak.

"If I were to get arrested or get a ticket, my mom wouldn't have the money to pay," he said Tuesday. "I don't think it's very fair to give tickets to African-Americans or any race because they could be poor."

For telling his story, and sharing his worries, he was applauded by many of the people who gathered for the two-hour event at Hillsborough Community College in Ybor City sponsored by the Department of Justice's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services.

Scheider and his group were called in by the city after the newspaper's story. He said the fact that the city asked for an outside review by the federal agency is to be commended.

Several people defended the police. A trio of women said they've had close calls in their cars with cyclists not obeying traffic rules in their neighborhoods. A handful of people also pointed out that the Tampa Bay area has a reputation as being one of the most dangerous places in the country for people on bikes.

"Cyclists think they're above the law," said John Moll, 75, who lives in Seminole Heights. "To me it's not a black-white issue. Some people don't think the law applies to them, no matter what their age, no matter their color."

Many people pushed back against that assertion, however, saying race is a part of the story.

Representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union, the Council on American-Islamic Relations and other social justice organizations said any time a policy creates such stark disparities, there is a problem.

Michael Maddux, a Tampa civil rights attorney, said officials have an opportunity to help "police the police."

"We have officers who are not prepared to de-escalate situations," he said.

Several people reiterated their call for a suspension of the Police Department's bike ticket program. They also made other requests, calling for an investigation by Department of Justice's civil rights division, which has the power to issue sanctions against the Police Department if it doesn't implement recommendations. The Office of Community Oriented Policing Services only offers voluntary recommendations. Some speakers also called for creation of a local citizen police review board.

Officials could not promise on Tuesday that any of those things would happen.

But Scheider said officials involved in the review will be in town for the rest of the week to continue their work, which will include more meetings with police and community officials.

He said the goal is to have a final report completed by the end of the year. However, with this type of investigation, he said, the burden to hold police accountable for any recommended changes does not stay with his office.

"After we leave, it's going to be incumbent on the public, and city leaders, to implement them," he said.

Contact Kameel Stanley at Follow @cornandpotatoes.