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Tampa’s mayor, police chief promise reform. Protesters have their doubts.

Mayor Jane Castor convened a workshop this summer to suggest ways to improve policing. The findings were released Saturday.
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor speaks during a March 12 news conference about the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor speaks during a March 12 news conference about the start of the coronavirus pandemic. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Aug. 29, 2020|Updated Aug. 29, 2020

TAMPA — In response to protests over racial injustice and policing, Mayor Jane Castor convened a workshop to get feedback and ideas from residents on how to improve the city’s police force.

The results, unveiled in a Saturday morning video conference, showed some people do not trust officers, do not believe police are held accountable and think the department needs better training.

The call featured two Tampa police chiefs: Castor, who served as chief from 2009-15 before being elected mayor in 2019, and current Police Chief Brian Dugan, who was appointed in 2017.

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

“We can’t undo our past, but we can educate ourselves on that history so that we don’t make the same mistakes again,” Castor said. “And we can use that history and that past to improve our police department and relationship with the community.”

Protest leaders said they have shouted concerns for months and have seen little change to suggest city leaders are listening.

“Words sound nice when you’re on a Zoom live,” said activist Jae Passmore, who has taken a prominent role during the Black Lives Matter protests. “Their actions speak differently.”

Activist Jae Passmore prepares to speak during a news conference this  month following her arrest.
Activist Jae Passmore prepares to speak during a news conference this month following her arrest. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

The effort was led by University of South Florida criminology professor Bryanna Fox. She shared findings from surveys involving about 30 community members (the majority of whom are Black), 10 police officers and 115 University of South Florida students (who live in areas patrolled by Tampa police). Of the community members in the data, according to Fox’s presentation, about 70 percent reported income of $75,000 or more.

The surveys were not meant to be representative of the community or even the police department, Fox said, but rather designed to solicit feedback.

Related: Prominent civil rights attorney Ben Crump to represent Tampa activist struck by car

Mistrust, she said, “came from generations and generations and decades of injustice.” A common response, she said, was that the Tampa Police Department needs to do more to hold officers accountable and to share its policies and data. Officers do not need more funding for weapons, community respondents said, but should get more training.

They also think the police are responsible for too much, especially when it comes to handling issues of social welfare and mental health.

Related: Tampa Mayor Jane Castor unveils police reforms

Fox’s recommendations to the department include: implementing a new model of policing built around fairness and transparency, prioritizing de-escalation techniques and considering a “co-response model” under which officers respond to some calls with trained mental health professionals and social workers.

“You have my pledge that our policies and our practices will reflect these recommendations,” Dugan said.

He noted what Fox recalled one community member saying: “I’m not afraid of getting pulled over. I’m afraid I won’t make it home.”

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“That is a powerful statement that I need to make sure our police officers hear,” the chief said.

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor speaks Saturday morning at a virtual workshop on community sentiment toward the police and potential reform.
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor speaks Saturday morning at a virtual workshop on community sentiment toward the police and potential reform. [ Screenshot from Zoom, City of Tampa ]

Fox structured her advice around pillars from a 2015 presidential task force on policing. Asked what has changed in Tampa since that report, Dugan said police have not done a good job of communicating the way the department has adjusted over the years, but did not cite specific policies.

Protesters since the spring have called for the mayor to fire Dugan and to defund the police, shifting money to other services. Castor has said she will not cut the budget or oust the chief, but will continue to invest in public safety.

Related: Activists want cuts to police budget. Jane Castor isn’t budging.

Tampa’s protests started soon after George Floyd was killed May 25 by a Minneapolis police officer. In those early days, police clashed with demonstrators, firing less-lethal bullets and pepper spray. People at times hurled bottles and Dugan said rocks have been thrown at officers.

The vast majority of demonstrations since then have been peaceful. Officers have arrested protesters, and many of the charges were later dropped.

Police pepper spray protesters and use force to detain some during a protest on Dale Mabry Highway on July 4.
Police pepper spray protesters and use force to detain some during a protest on Dale Mabry Highway on July 4. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Tensions still run high between demonstrators and the police, and Passmore has been at the center of some incidents. She was injured during a June 21 protest in Hyde Park Village when a pickup truck driver drove through protesters, knocking her to the ground. No arrest was made, and police say the incident is still under investigation.

Related: Tampa police seek reckless driving charge against man who drove through July 4 protest

Then she was arrested Aug. 12 when a pro-police demonstrator told officers she slapped him in the back of the head. Police released a video that appears to show a man blocking her path, and Passmore pushing him from behind on the shoulder.

Passmore said she did not listen to the briefing Saturday, but when told of Castor’s comments said the mayor spoke from a “position of privilege.” Passmore noted that residents still feel pain from a policy Castor oversaw as chief under which officers ticketed Black bicyclists at a disproportionate rate.

Related: How riding your bike can land you in trouble with the cops — if you're black

Castor told reporters Saturday she believes residents trust her and the department, “but it is something that has to be worked on every single day.” Earlier, a moderator in the workshop asked about civil unrest in Kenosha, Wis., where a police officer shot Jacob Blake, a Black man, in the back.

“I understand that as a form of expression of that anger and that frustration, but I also applaud what is being done here in this workshop,” Castor said. “It’s easier to participate in the demonstrations than it is to roll up your sleeves and affect positive change in those particular areas. If it was easy to do, it would have been done a long time ago.”

The mayor was being flippant, Passmore said, adding that it’s not easy to protest during a pandemic.

Related: Why do Tampa Bay’s police keep clashing with protesters?

Emadi Okwuosa, another Tampa protest leader who was arrested this year, said he was asked to participate in the workshop but declined. His charges have been dropped, and he has moved home to Connecticut after finishing school at the University of South Florida.

“I had a feeling that it might be a lot of performative talk,” Okwuosa said. “It may seem as through change is coming, it may seem as though there’s performative change, but people are still being arrested.”

Related: State says ‘no evidence’ Tampa protest leader incited a riot during June demonstration
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