TAMPA — All summer the message from activists against police misconduct was clear: Tampa needs to improve its oversight of police officers.
A large, passionate crowd of activists in June, and again in September, outlined a series of changes to the 11-member Citizen Review Board, including giving it subpoena power, an independent investigator and attorneys, and City Council control over its appointments. Mayor Jane Castor’s administration promised to review and discuss with the police union and the ACLU before reporting back to council members this month.
The results are in. Castor’s proposed ordinance doesn’t grant any of those changes. Instead, the mayor would control five appointments, the same as City Council, and the 11th member would be nominated by the NAACP and confirmed by council members, giving the council a thin majority.
The gap between the two sides sets the stage for Thursday’s council meeting on an issue that has been one of the first-term mayor’s biggest political battles since she took office in May 2019.
Bill Carlson, a council member who pushed for revamping the board, said the proposed ordinance can always be further amended, but the proposal is a good start.
“The bottom line on this is it’s light years ahead on what was implemented years ago. It was much better than it was in 2015,” Carlson said Tuesday.
The panel was formed in 2015 after a Times investigation into the police department’s practice of ticketing bicyclists, which resulted in Black bicyclists being ticketed disproportionately. During her campaign, Castor said the policy had been a mistake.
Kelly Benjamin, a community organizer with Tampa For Justice, an advocacy group that has pushed for greater powers for the review board, said he was disappointed in Castor’s offer.
“We know this playbook already. Everybody knows this board has been a sham since Day 1. Here we are again,” Benjamin said.
One change that Castor did approve in negotiations with the city’s police union was to allow former officers serve on the board.
“That’s just ridiculous," Benjamin said. “It flies in the face of the intention for this board to provide a voice for the community.”
Yet police union president Darla Portman said it’s important to have law enforcement experience on the board to give perspective, she said.
She also applauded Castor for not budging on allowing the board to investigate open cases. That would be a violation of the union’s contract, Portman said.
“It’s a compromise. We all worked really hard on this,” Portman said.
Castor’s office said it was optimistic a compromise could be reached.
“We have been working with the ACLU and the PBA (Police Benevolent Association) to iron out differences in their positions to try and find middle ground,” said Ashley Bauman, Castor’s spokeswoman.
Yvette Lewis, president of the local chapter of the NAACP, said she hopes the mayor meets residents “halfway.” Trust in the police in the community isn’t where it should be, she said.
“Now, it’s up to the mayor to reassure us that everyone is going to be treated equally and with the same respect and the scale is balanced. For too long it hasn’t been balanced,” Lewis said.
One key point in dispute is whether the board is able to have subpoena power. Castor points to a 2017 Florida Supreme Court decision that subpoena powers for such boards violated existing state law.
The ACLU has argued that the 2017 decision applies only to the officer under investigation. Documents and other witnesses can still be subpoenaed, the non-profit has said.
James Shaw, a volunteer ACLU attorney, said very little of what his organization asked for is in the draft. He took issue with the mayor’s continued resistance to giving the board subpoena power, noting that Key West, Miami, along with Broward, have already done so.
“There is this legal argument that doesn’t hold any water that says Tampa can’t do it and other cities can,” Shaw said.
Last month, Broward County commissioners voted unanimously to create a police review board with limited subpoena powers. Tampa should do the same, Benjamin said.
Carlson said Thursday’s meeting might result in changes to the ordinance. Additional talks might yield changes before then, he said.
The City Council will meet in a hybrid meeting at the Tampa Convention Center at 9 a.m. Thursday. Public comment will be heard in person, but residents also can register to speak remotely or submit comments via email at tampagov.net/PublicComment. They can also leave a voice mail at 813-274-8877.
The meeting will be streamed live at tampagov.net/Livestream. It also available on Spectrum channel 640 and Frontier channel 15.