TAMPA — Seven local and state African-American elected officials issued a statement Thursday calling on Tampa Mayor Jane Castor and Police Chief Brian Dugan to immediately end what they characterized as unprovoked use of force by police on peaceful protesters.
The group said police actions over the past week dealing with protests “cannot go unchecked."
Signed by County Commission Chairman Les Miller, State Senator Darryl Rouson, Tampa City Council member Orlando Gudes, School Board member Tamara Shamburger and State Reps. Fentrice Driskell, Dianne Hart of Tampa and Wengay Newton of St. Petersburg, the statement cited three incidents.
The first came when police used “rubber bullets and tear gas” to disperse a “peaceful gathering” at Cyrus Greene Park over the weekend. The second, a Monday incident when Tampa police reportedly used force against an unarmed black man at Tampa General Hospital. The third came late Tuesday and early Wednesday, when Tampa police used “aggressive and dehumanizing tactics to disperse crowds of peaceful protesters in downtown Tampa," according to the letter.
Castor and Dugan have said in recent days that a small group of violent protesters turned violent, throwing bricks and refusing to go home. Dugan told council members Thursday that his officers escorted protesters for eight miles on Tuesday evening before a small group started causing problems. Over the weekend, Dugan and Castor said, looters and vandals destroyed property and threw objects at police, causing major disturbances.
“We’re the guardians of our city. We’ll defend our city,” Dugan said at the council meeting. “Sometimes defending your city is ugly.”
Dugan said he’s saddened by how much of the peaceful protests have been overshadowed by the sporadic violence, but said his officers have a duty to protect residents and themselves. He called for dialogue and reiterated his support for peaceful protests and groups like Black Lives Matter. He said he hoped protesters would begin to report looters and other troublemakers in the days to come.
“This happened on my watch. It’s not my proudest moment,” Dugan said, adding that he stood by his decisions over the past week.
Details of the June 1 incident at Tampa General are unclear. Police say they are investigating.
Hart and Gudes have asked that the officers involved in the June 1 incident be put on immediate administrative leave during the investigation, a position endorsed by the other five elected officials.
At Thursday’s meeting, council members asked that Castor’s administration report back later this month on the status of the investigation.
The statement calls for a “new era” of policing and for more accountability and transparency from Castor’s administration.
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“Let us be clear: we strongly condemn the use of force or violence by law enforcement against any protester who peacefully exercises their rights to the freedom of assembly and expression. We also condemn the use of force or violence by law enforcement against unarmed individuals whose only crime appears to be living while black. To reiterate our recent joint statement against the rioting by those who crossed the line from civil disobedience to destruction, we maintain our united call for peace. But make no mistake: in order for our community to experience the healing that it desperately needs, all stakeholders must be equally committed to doing their part to attain peace. This means that law enforcement must be held accountable for its actions as well,” read the statement.
The mayor’s office didn’t have any immediate comment.
Times staff writer Tony Marrero contributed to this report.