TAMPA — It's unclear when federal officials will begin a likely months-long review of the Police Department's longtime practice of ticketing mostly black people for bicycle violations.
Yet already, questions are swirling about their task.
City Council Chairman Frank Reddick said that in the weeks since the investigation was announced, people have contacted him concerned about whether the inquiry, which will be handled by the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), is really a "full scale investigation from the Department of Justice."
"That's what I was hoping for," Reddick said. "But what I'm hearing in the last couple days is this is a different program. . . . Basically from what my understanding is, is they will basically be doing an assessment versus an investigation."
Reddick was the first to call for Justice Department intervention shortly after a Tampa Bay Times investigation, published last month, showed blacks received about 80 percent of bicycle citations over the past dozen years though they make up about a quarter of the city's population.
The council member said he wants to know if people's civil rights were violated.
Officials from the American Civil Liberties Union are closely monitoring the situation as well, saying they've heard concerns about the nature and scope of the review.
"The COPS office is a different office than the civil rights division," said Nusrat Jahan Choudhury, staff attorney with the ACLU's Racial Justice Program. "COPS is usually called into communities to facilitate discussion between police and communities. What we're concerned about is that the data disclosed is suggestive of racial profiling and unreasonable stops and searches. It's clear the community is concerned not about messages police are using to explain this but whether its practices are resulting in racial profiling of entire communities."
Mayor Bob Buckhorn and recently retired police Chief Jane Castor said they do not believe racial profiling is occurring in the stops, but called for federal officials to review the data and offer recommendations.
City spokesperson Ali Glisson said people should not prejudge the report.
"Again, we have asked for the input on this program specifically, but given their expertise and background on community oriented policing best practices, we're confident that their recommendations and general insight will be beneficial for the department overall," Glisson said in an email.
There are differences between the two federal branches, though both are under the Justice umbrella.
The civil rights division, recently deployed to places such as Ferguson, Mo. and Baltimore in the wake of deaths of young black men during interactions with police, typically embarks on "pattern and practice" investigations that can result in consent decrees and even settlements with police departments.
The COPS office has traditionally focused on a more collaborative approach with agencies and is known for making resources, including grants, available to police departments to tackle things such as community policing, crime analysis, training and fostering better relationships with minority residents.
It does not have the power to sue if its recommendations aren't followed.
In recent years, however, COPS investigations have been touted by law enforcement as a "promising approach" to police reforms, in part because they take less time than traditional civil rights cases. COPS was brought in to assist officials concerned about police shootings in Las Vegas and Philadelphia, and recently released a lengthy report on misconduct at the San Diego Police Department.
Glisson said Castor personally called COPS director Ron Davis to ask him to look into Tampa's bike law enforcement. Glisson noted COPS was the division that "ran point" on the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, the same organization Castor testified before earlier this year.
"Our goal was to have an objective third party do the review, as opposed to TPD themselves, in order to provide a level of transparency and impartiality that we feel both TPD and the community will benefit from," Glisson said.
COPS officials have said they will get started soon in Tampa, but have not given an exact date. A contractor will do the actual analysis of the Police Department's traffic citation data, spokeswoman Mary Brandenberger said.
She also said that though the Tampa review will focus on data, COPS reviewers can always get their civil rights colleagues involved if they believe it is warranted.
Reddick said his overall goal is to get to the bottom of the practice.
"My vision was to see if civil rights were being violated," he said. "I just wanted to make sure whether this was a form of targeting African-Americans to reduce crime, or if this is being used as a justification to get African-Americans off the street."
Contact Kameel Stanley at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8643. Follow @cornandpotatoes.