Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, City Council haggle over changes to police review board

Nothing was decided Thursday, but city legal staff will work with ACLU and police union on suggested tweaks.
Members of the Tampa City Council were social distanced. Thursday, June 4, 2020 at the Tampa Convention Center.  On Thursday, in a virtual workshop, they discussed an overhaul of the city's police review board.
Members of the Tampa City Council were social distanced. Thursday, June 4, 2020 at the Tampa Convention Center. On Thursday, in a virtual workshop, they discussed an overhaul of the city's police review board. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]
Published Sept. 24, 2020|Updated Sept. 30, 2020

TAMPA — After months of street protests against police misconduct, Mayor Jane Castor and City Council members sought middle ground Thursday on an overhaul of the city’s police oversight board.

They didn’t quite get there after a sometimes contentious five-hour meeting.

But City Attorney Gina Grimes pledged to work with the ACLU and police union officials to find a workable solution to an overhaul of the volunteer Citizen Review Board by Thanksgiving.

Council members then voted unanimously to have Grimes bring back a draft ordinance at the council’s Nov. 19 meeting.

But a dispute remains a sticking point: whether voters would have to approve certain changes — like appointments to the volunteer Citizen Review Board — or if council members could change the panel’s structure by ordinance. And it led to a heated exchange between City Council attorney Martin Shelby and Grimes.

At one point, Grimes told Shelby to “just relax,” a suggestion that didn’t sit well with the former Largo City Council member who now is paid to be council members' legal representative.

After the temper flares and a bevy of ideas, some on the seven-member council made clear they wanted reform fast.

“On Nov. 19, let’s vote on something,” said Luis Viera.

Others wanted slower, more permanent change coming from a charter amendment.

“I don’t think we’ll be ready,” said Charlie Miranda about the November deadline.

Castor proposed a 5-5 split in appointments to the volunteer Citizen Review Board. An 11th member would be picked by council members, but subject to the mayor’s approval.

One of the additional appointments would be a NAACP member.

But several council members, supported by the ACLU and activists, said they wanted the power to appoint the majority of the members.

Currently, the mayor has a 5-4 advantage in appointments, a structure criticized by activists who said it made the board a rubber stamp.

Created in 2015, after an explosive report in the Tampa Bay Times and a subsequent Department of Justice review, the review board is currently derided by activists as toothless.

The mayor’s proposed changes, said Grimes, would accomplish more transparency and reflects the mayor’s listening to the community since the protests began in late May, after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.

Activists want more: an independent board staffed with investigators and an attorney that could subpoena witnesses and evidence.

“Take that energy from the streets and put it into concrete policy,” said Kelly Benjamin, who has worked as an activist on the issue for more than five years.

Castor’s offering, Grimes said, would lead to real change.

“It’s important to focus on the fact that everyone involved has a common goal,” Grimes said.

The changes give Tampa a stronger board than St. Petersburg and most other cities around the state, she said.

Attorney James Shaw, who volunteers for the local chapter of the ACLU, said in public comments earlier in the meeting that Miami has a police review board with subpoena power. He said while it’s true that state law prohibits review boards from subpoenaing offic ers involved in misconduct investigations, they can demand to see documents and other witnesses.

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“The sky didn’t fall in Miami and it won’t fall in Tampa either,” Shaw said about giving the Tampa panel similar powers.

Miami’s model, Grimes said, is redundant and expensive and doesn’t do anything more than replicate an internal investigation. And she didn’t give an inch on the issue of subpoena power, foreshadowing what might be the biggest fight in the weeks ahead.

Police union president Darla Portman said the mayor’s proposal was “a fair compromise." The union has declined to fight for 17 officers over six years that “have gone off the reservation," she said.

“The mayor has done a great job of getting rid of officers that just don’t fit," Portman said.

But union officials worry about giving the review board the power to recommend discipline to the chief or having access to sensitive information about police officers that could be released to the news media or dumped on social media.

Council members appeared to support calls for outside counsel to work with the board. Currently, an assistant city attorney, who also works as a liaison with the police department, fills that role.

And they appeared to have a majority in favor of giving council control of board appointments.

“It gives power to the people,” said Chairman Guido Maniscalco.

The council’s decision to wait until at least November to make any changes to the lightning-rod panel is certain to displease advocates for police reform.

During public comment, a prominent protester, Matthew Yampolsky, derided the council members as “useless gaslighters," and vowed to organize efforts to oust all seven members at the next city elections in 2023.