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Summer marked by slowdown in bike ticketing by Tampa police

TAMPA — Tampa police dramatically decreased their bicycle ticketing after a Tampa Bay Times investigation this spring found stark racial disparities in the long-standing practice.

Police gave out 59 bike tickets from May through July, fewer than any other summer in more than a decade, according to department records. A Times analysis found Tampa police wrote three times more tickets in the same period last year.

The court records also show that:

• Officers have recorded fewer encounters with bicyclists — regardless of whether they resulted in citations or other action.

• The racial disparity for this summer's tickets is the lowest it has been in any summer on record, with six of 10 tickets going to blacks. If that continues, this year would end with the least lopsided racial disparity in ticketing on record.

• Fewer youngsters got bike tickets this summer than ever before. Sixty percent were black. In the previous three summers, black juveniles accounted for at least 90 percent of youngsters ticketed.

The slowdown in bike stops and ticketing comes in the wake of a Times investigation published in April that found Tampa police issued more bike citations than any other law enforcement agency in Florida, and that eight out of 10 of them went to blacks.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said police Chief Eric Ward, appointed to head the department shortly after the bike ticket issue came to light, has advised his officers not to "(worry) about driving up your numbers."

"He went down to the roll calls, and among many things that he talked about, was the importance of using your discretion as an officer and not worrying about the statistics," Buckhorn told the Times.

In the days following the Times investigation, Buckhorn and then-police Chief Jane Castor defended the department's enforcement of bike laws, which mostly affected African-Americans even though they make up just a quarter of the city's population.

But they also took a series of actions in response to the investigation.

They asked the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Community-Oriented Policing Services to conduct a review, which is expected to be completed by the end of the year.

The city's legal department also sent out a memo reminding officers about what is and isn't a lawful stop.

Before the Times story, the department was not tracking its bike tickets, including how many it gave, who received them or any other patterns.

Buckhorn promised that would change. In response to questions from the City Council, Ward has said he would give the council a quarterly report on tickets issued.

According to the tracking system the department is now using, officers reported making 507 bike stops from May through July. That's fewer stops than police conducted in just one month last summer.

The department also is recording when it hands out bike lights; 28 lights were issued this summer. It is not tracking the race of those ticketed or stopped.

Still, the slowdown in enforcement has not halted efforts of community and social justice groups who say the real issues with the Police Department go much deeper than bike tickets.

For months, groups including the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP have sent letters, spoken out at community forums and met with elected officials about myriad issues surrounding how the city polices poor, black neighborhoods.

The groups say that so far city officials have not fulfilled their promise to have monthly community meetings that would allow the public to report about their interactions with police.

"People are frustrated because they don't feel their concerns are being heard by the Tampa Police Department or the mayor," said Bennie Small, head of the Hillsborough County branch of the NAACP.

He said he has heard that community police officers have met with some neighborhood leaders in East Tampa. Small said no formal meetings have taken place between his group and city officials.

Police spokeswoman Andrea Davis said Ward has been in regular contact with community groups.

The activists have consistently asked for two things that so far have not happened: a suspension of the bike ticketing and a civil rights investigation by the Department of Justice. (Though the COPS Office may offer recommendations to police, it cannot force the city to follow them, as would be the case in a civil rights investigation.)

Buckhorn said he doesn't think a suspension of tickets or a civil rights investigation is "appropriate."

He said officials are working closely with the COPS Office and have already fulfilled some of their requests, such as putting a link on the Police Department's website so people can comment anonymously about their interactions with officers.

"We're committed to reducing crime in those neighborhoods, and those bicycle stops have been a tool that have allowed us to do that, and we don't make any apologies for that," the mayor said. "Those people that are offering those suggestions don't live in those neighborhoods, largely, so it's easy for them to stand on their soapbox and tell us what we should do or shouldn't do."

Weeks ago, race relations, bike tickets and the Police Department's image in the community were the subject of a community forum titled, "Injustice and Inequality in Tampa's African-American Community in the Buckhorn Era." Residents and the City Council also have pressed for Tampa to create a civilian police review board.

Joyce Hamilton Henry, director of advocacy for the local ACLU chapter, said the community is very interested and invested in the review board. She said there still needs to be a process for accountability and transparency.

"Whether or not the recent data shows a temporary drop in the rate people of color on bikes are being stopped, searched, cited and arrested doesn't address the full scope of policing communities of color for low-level traffic and criminal offenses," said Nusrat Jahan Choudhury, an attorney with ACLU's Racial Justice Program.

She said the ACLU is still pushing to get data from Tampa police about their traffic stops and enforcement of low-level misdemeanors.

"Analysis of that data will show whether there's been a true shift in how Tampa police are treating communities of color," she said.

Buckhorn said that he can't make everyone happy and that he doesn't think his relationship with the African-American community has been damaged.

Small said the NAACP hears from residents multiple times a week about issues with the Police Department. He said problems arise when those same people don't feel like they are being heard, especially by Buckhorn.

"There are some in the community who think he is being insensitive," Small said. "We want dialogue with the mayor's office and police. . . . I think it's getting caught up in bureaucracy."

Computer-assisted reporting specialist Connie Humburg contributed to this report. Contact Alexandra Zayas at (727) 893-8413 or azayas@tampabay.com.

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