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Tampa’s policing task force meets behind closed doors. Should it?

Mayor Jane Castor says the task force's participants will be able to craft better policy outside of media scrutiny.

TAMPA — A month ago, when Mayor Jane Castor announced a list of police reforms, the formation of a community policing task force received scant attention compared to outsourcing investigations of police shootings to state law enforcement, codifying a ban on choke holds and requiring officers to intervene if they witness misconduct.

The task force met behind closed doors at the end of June and will gather again Saturday. The group will meet at least once more in August when a report with recommendations will be issued.

Activists have criticized Castor’s decision to keep the meetings private. The mayor said she decided barring media from attending would be the best way to foster open, honest discussion.

“We went round and round about making this an open meeting that the entire community, the media could participate in, but we really wanted to narrow it down to a group. Based on meetings that I had, and feedback that I had, my vision was to convene community leaders of various organizations, advocates and law enforcement together so that they could have very open, honest discussions,” Castor said in a Wednesday interview with the Tampa Bay Times.

Castor appeared only briefly at the June 27 meeting, but plans to take a larger role in Saturday’s meeting and one in August that has yet to be scheduled.

The task force’s work and the accompanying report, being authored by University of South Florida criminologist Bryanna Fox, won’t be undercut by lack of public participation, Castor said.

“I think that people feel more comfortable in a smaller group setting and you can get a lot more accomplished in smaller groups than, you know, opening it wide open to the public. And so we thought that having a group of approximately 50 individuals that were broken down into smaller groups to have these discussions about what policing looks like moving forward in our community — that would be the most productive use of of our time,” Castor said, adding that the report and its recommendations would be made public when it’s released in August.

Fox said she and a team of 12 graduate students will distill the task force’s recommendations and try to apply them to vetted, proven models of effective community policing.

“I haven’t seen one thing that solves everything,” Fox said. But she said a Chicago program in “procedural justice training” has shown promising results.

Fox noted a study showing the Chicago program reduced complaints against police by 10.0 percent and reduced the use of force against civilians by 6.4 percent over two years.

Training officers to treat all citizens with respect along with an effort to allocate police resources fairly has been met with positive feedback from the community, she said.

The framework for the task force discussions are former President Barack Obama’s 21st-century policing task force, which was formed after the Ferguson, Missouri protests in 2014.

Hillsborough NAACP branch president Yvette Lewis is a member of the task force. She agrees with Castor that the meetings should be closed to the media.

“If you’re asking people to have an honest and open discussion, the media shouldn’t be there,” Lewis said.

Castor said she invited leaders of Tampa’s protest movement to participate, naming Emadi Okwuosa specifically.

Okwuosa said he decided against attending because he thought it was essentially a publicity stunt.

“I knew that it wouldn’t actually produce any actual change. It was just for show,” Okwuosa said, adding he isn’t planning to attend Saturday’s meeting.

Ultimately, Castor said, the meetings are intended to strengthen trust between the community and police.

“This is an opportunity to be able to enhance the (police department’s) level of service, to be able to communicate with the citizens and to find out, you know, exactly what those needs are, to listen, and make the changes that are necessary,” Castor said.

Meanwhile, Police Chief Brian Dugan announced two community workshops on “fair and impartial policing” to be held on July 22 and July 24.

Those workshops will be open to the public, Dugan said during Thursday’s Facebook Live appearance with Castor.

The workshops will be held from 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. at the Convention Center, according to police department spokeswoman Jamel Laneé.

Attendees, Dugan said, will learn how the University of South Florida is partnering with the Tampa Police Department to conduct implicit bias training, and there will be a chance for residents to learn about implicit bias.

Implicit bias commonly refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that unconsciously inform people’s actions and decisions.

Dugan said interested residents can email tpd-pio@tampagov.net for more information on the workshops.

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