A political club over Tampa police | Editorial
Oversight board should be a tool for good policing, not power play with the mayor
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, center, seen here at an art dedication in east Tampa on Oct. 31, 2019, is locked into a debate with the Tampa City Council over appointments to the city's oversight board for the police department.
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, center, seen here at an art dedication in east Tampa on Oct. 31, 2019, is locked into a debate with the Tampa City Council over appointments to the city's oversight board for the police department. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Jun. 11
Updated Jun. 11

The Tampa City Council has dueled with Mayor Jane Castor for the past year over the city’s Citizen Review Board, which oversees police conduct. This fight isn’t about policing; it’s about political power, and it’s a loser for the City Council — legally, practically and politically. There are legitimate issues to address at the Tampa Police Department. But there’s a right way and a wrong way to do everything.

The city created the board in 2015 after a Tampa Bay Times investigation found that the Tampa police had disproportionately ticketed Black bicyclists as part of a divisive policing strategy. Officers stopped Black cyclists for minor violations as a pretext for questioning and searching people in high-crime neighborhoods — a strategy that flopped as a policing tool and that the city rightly abandoned. The board was established in the aftermath to repair police relations in the Black community, and to provide an ongoing forum for addressing any instances of abuse.

What began as a shaky stab at a fresh start unraveled last summer in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by a white Minneapolis police officer. The protests nationwide against police violence and mistreatment of Black citizens erupted in Tampa, too, where the police department’s response wavered from uneven to heavy-handed. Activists revived their earlier criticisms that the Citizen Review Board was “toothless,” which prodded the City Council to push for a more resurgent role.

By a 5-2 vote in May, council members decided to give themselves seven appointments to the 11-member board, replacing the 7-4 majority controlled by the mayor. Castor had agreed to split the appointments 5-5, with the final appointment reserved for a representative of the Tampa NAACP. The changes would also broaden the board’s purview, giving it a say, for example, in the hiring process for officers. Some council members also want the board to have subpoena power, independent investigators and its own attorney. While those points have been tabled for now, it shows the extreme that is driving this debate. A final vote on the overhaul is scheduled for Thursday.

This back-door attempt to control the police department provides no end of opportunities for political mischief. It puts the City Council in a position to put its thumb on a police chief who under the city charter answers to the mayor. It discourages the chief from taking the review board seriously or even participating in its own proceedings. And why would anyone hand subpoena power, investigators and attorneys to a board of volunteers, whose members have no required credentials in the law or public safety? Second-guessing police conduct is adversarial enough. Suiting up this board for legal and political battle almost guarantees that nothing positive will get accomplished.

Castor and Chief Brian Dugan joined many other political and law enforcement leaders across Tampa Bay to reexamine police practices in the wake of Floyd’s murder. That dialogue has made the community safer for residents and officers alike, and helped repair community relations just as the review board envisioned in the aftermath of the Times’ “Biking While Black” series. And Castor has already agreed to expand the board’s oversight authority. That progress should not be soured by calls to reapportion appointments, to gear up for litigation or to launch fishing trips against the police department.

If the Black Lives Matter movement has shown anything, it’s that government and citizens alike have a shared interest in responsible policing. That requires collaboration, understanding and strong lines of communication. These changes undermine that very fabric in Tampa’s oversight board. The City Council should reject them, and work with activists and the mayor on specific steps for improving policing in Tampa.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.