On Thursday, the Tampa City Council will address amendments to the citizens review board for the Tampa Police Department, which investigates residents’ complaints about police misconduct. Generally, law enforcement agencies have always conducted their own investigations concerning police misconduct without participation from third parties. With the proposed amendments to the review board, the public would have a meaningful voice as well.
The proposed amendments are not radical and could begin to enhance the public’s trust of the Tampa Police Department. They bring Tampa up-to-date with other major cities in Florida, and around the country, that have already adopted similar amendments to their own respective citizen review boards. The opposition’s stance on the proposed amendments is based on fear of change and, unfortunately, an unjustified fear of allowing the public to have a voice on a matter of public concern. Transparency and accountability should be priority issues for the Tampa Police Department.
A recent column in the Times by the police union’s president claims that law enforcement officers will be unfairly scrutinized by an enhanced review board, claiming that law enforcement officers are already scrutinized enough by various legal entities and others. They say it could result in decreased morale and deterrence of talented new recruits. Speaking as a former law-enforcement officer, I understand those concerns. But there is no evidence that any of that has actually occurred in cities with similar boards. The evidence points in the opposite direction. There are more than 60 civilian review boards, or the equivalent thereof, nationwide and about a dozen in Florida, and they have not led to the parade of horribles that the police union president predicts.
The other assertion is that civilian review boards, when reviewing police-involved shootings, will insert politics into what should be strictly a fact-finding process. But that is the current system, where law enforcement officers judge their own. A civilian system, properly organized, would lack this built-in bias. The people of Tampa deserve to have a seat at the table and a voice in the process, and this is essentially what the proposed amendments to the CRB seek to give them.
Scrutiny comes with any job or profession. The more power and responsibility a job entails, the more scrutiny is necessary to protect the public. Lawyers, accountants, teachers, engineers, medical professionals, and other public servants all have various entities that pay attention to their use of the power entrusted to them for the protection of the public, and this should be accepted and understood by professionals in their respective fields, including law enforcement.
The opposition’s concerns are reasons to take care in how the members are selected, and how they are trained, not a reason to refrain from making the needed changes at all. And to be truly effective, they should be able to conduct an independent investigation and not just a review of the police review.
Everyone — police and residents of Tampa — benefits from a review board that has earned the respect of the community, and can be a real voice for the community. An empowered investigatory civilian review board benefits not only the community, but the police as well.
Julius Adams is a Legal Panel member of the Greater Tampa Chapter of the ACLU of Florida