Tampa, ACLU remain at odds over police oversight board

Little has changed in the sticking points revolving around the independence of the Citizen Review Board. Will Thursday’s meeting break the impasse?
People who want to be in the room stand at a doorway of a Citizens Review Board meeting at the Tampa Convention Center on Tuesday, June 23, 2020.
People who want to be in the room stand at a doorway of a Citizens Review Board meeting at the Tampa Convention Center on Tuesday, June 23, 2020. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Feb. 24, 2021|Updated Feb. 24, 2021

TAMPA — Shortly after street protests against police brutality started on the city’s streets last year, activists began demanding an overhaul of the city’s police oversight board.

Mayor Jane Castor has responded to those demands with proposed reforms, including more City Council power over appointments and a role in police hires for the Citizen Review Board, created in 2015 after an outcry following a Tampa Bay Times investigation revealed disproportionate ticketing of black bicyclists.

But the two sides have sparred over the board’s independence, including subpoena power for the volunteer panel and independent attorneys and investigators.

In advance of a City Council workshop Thursday, it doesn’t appear either side has ceded ground.

Related: Mayor Castor's tweaks to Tampa's police review board disappoint activists

A Feb. 18 draft memo and ordinance sent by City Attorney Gina Grimes to council members didn’t include previous requests from the ACLU and other activists to grant the board more independence from the mayor.

The city’s draft ordinance kept the board’s role to reviewing closed cases where discipline has already been imposed. Grimes would retain power to assign either an assistant city attorney for the board or appoint outside counsel in case of a conflict of interest. And the proposal didn’t include independent subpoena power or independent investigators.

Mayor Jane Castor would have five appointments to the board. Council members would get five and one would be reserved for a representative from the NAACP, according to Grimes’s memo.

The mayor’s office declined comment.

In response, the ACLU sent a memo to Grimes and City Council attorney Martin Shelby Tuesday that repeated previous requests for an independent attorney and investigators and independent subpoena power.

The ACLU’s Tampa Chapter’s memo also requested that the board be given the authority to investigate allegations of criminal conduct, excessive force and unlawful search. And the group would give the mayor the power to appoint just one board member.

City Council would have seven appointments and the NAACP would retain its seat under the ACLU plan.

Kelly Benjamin, an organizer with Tampa For Justice, an advocacy group in favor of a board overhaul, said the current board’s role is a “sham.”

“This issue is really about wrestling control away and having some independence,” Benjamin said. “The people that were in the streets, this is what they were demanding: A credible voice in how communities are policed.”

Darla Portman, the city’s police union president, said she’s “completely satisfied” with the city’s proposal.

“I’m like a kid in a toy store. If I get a few presents and they get a few presents. I’m good. I don’t need the whole toy store,” Portman said.

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Gaining control of the board’s appointments is the highest priority for council member Bill Carlson. The rest is up for debate, he said.

After nearly a year of wrangling, Chairman Guido Maniscalco said he hopes that something can be hammered out at Thursday’s meeting.

“Maybe this is where we can bring it in for a landing,” he said.

The council workshop is 9 a.m. Thursday. The meeting will be a hybrid, with public comment available in a different area of City Hall. The meeting will be streamed at and aired on Spectrum channel 640 and Frontier channel 15.