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Civil rights activists push for City Council control of police review in Tampa

“I feel like, for the first time in a long time, change is coming,” said activist Connie Burton, 65. “But good feelings and a good pat on the back don’t amount to anything.”
Yvette Lewis, president of the Hillsborough County NAACP, joins other civil rights group representatives for a news conference Monday at Tampa City Hall on the police Citizens Review Board.
Yvette Lewis, president of the Hillsborough County NAACP, joins other civil rights group representatives for a news conference Monday at Tampa City Hall on the police Citizens Review Board. [ ANASTASIA DAWSON | Times ]
Published May 24
Updated May 25

TAMPA — Connie Burton has never backed away from a fight with the city of Tampa, even when the odds seemed stacked against her.

The 65-year-old community activist was born and raised in a public housing development in East Tampa and so were her children and grandchildren. The blight and decay of 1990s-era housing projects — gang wars, drug raids, children caught in drive-by shootings — aren’t just stories to Burton.

She was there when the Department of Justice launched an investigation in 2015 that found Tampa police officers disproportionately ticketed black bicyclists. She was there when, in response, then-Mayor Bob Buckhorn created Tampa’s first Citizens Review Board — an 11-member group that fields complaints about potential police misconduct.

And in the years since then, Burton has been there raising concerns that the board is “toothless,” unwilling or incapable of fostering the communication and trust that had been promised.

It was often a lonely battle, she said, until one year ago. Burton’s calls for more accountability among the Tampa Police Department were amplified by the movement that grew from the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer one year ago Tuesday.

Related: Tampa City Council moves forward on police reform. Will Jane Castor veto it?

“I feel like, for the first time in a long time, change is coming,” Burton said. “But good feelings and a good pat on the back don’t amount to anything. The way we are going to measure change inside of our community is when black mothers and fathers no longer feel the need to give their children a set of instructions on what to do if they see the police.”

Floyd’s death prompted Mayor Jane Castor, the former chief of police, to revisit the Citizens Review Board. After a year of negotiations, the mayor finds herself at odds with the City Council.

Burton spoke alongside members of local civil rights groups during a news conference Monday where they applauded moves by the City Council to take control over the Citizens Review Board from the mayor and the Police Department.

The event was a direct response to an impromptu news conference the mayor and Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan held Thursday. It came right after the council voted 5-2 to give themselves seven appointments to the board, leaving three for the mayor. An 11th member would be named by the council from among members of the NAACP.

Currently, the mayor appoints six members to the board — the controlling majority. She wanted the new makeup to be a 5-5-1 split.

Castor said Thursday she was disappointed that the council would not compromise with the Police Department. She can veto the change in the makeup of the board when the council takes a final vote June 17, but they have the five votes to override her.

“The Citizens Review Board can move forward, but it is going to be ineffective,” Castor said Thursday. “They would have to design their own CRB without the participation of the Police Department.”

Yvette Lewis, president of the Hillsborough NAACP, said at Monday’s news conference, “They’re just trying to create a problem where there isn’t one. ... How long do we have to continue to wait this out?”

Burton warned against going back to a “business as usual model.”

“We have to prioritize the voices in our community,” she said, “that can speak truth to power.”