In 2015, the Tampa Bay Times uncovered an appalling statistic: Though Black residents made up just 26 percent of Tampa’s population, Black cyclists received 79 percent of the tickets issued by the Tampa Police Department in 12 years.
These civil traffic citations, which overwhelmingly affected low-income Black Tampa neighborhoods, accounted for more than the total number of bicycle tickets issued in four of Florida’s largest cities combined between 2012 and 2015. A closer look at the ticketing revealed that the Tampa police used the stops as a pretext to question and search as many residents as they could, employing racial profiling to fish for evidence of crimes.
Some residents were ticketed multiple times, even on the same day in some cases. Others were ticketed for minor infractions, the cost of which quickly ballooned into unaffordable fines and driver’s license suspensions because of those unaffordable fines. The Tampa police confiscated the bicycle of one 54-year-old man after he was unable to provide a receipt to prove his ownership. The practice also targeted children as young as 11 years old.
Despite Tampa police justifications at the time, the Department of Justice found that the tickets did not improve safety on the street or lower crime.
For 12 years, several facets of the Tampa government preyed on Black residents without cause. It was time for residents to advocate for themselves.
I was among the group of local individuals and advocates who worked to establish a Citizen Review Board following the Times’ report. No longer would residents be targeted without accountability. Instead, they would have a democratic say in their local government’s practices, or so we thought.
We advocated for a Citizen Review Board with teeth, meaning that it would have its own attorney and the ability to subpoena evidence. These tools would ensure that the Citizen Review Board would have access to an independent attorney free of potential conflicts of interest, such as ties to the city. The ability to subpoena evidence would also allow the Citizen Review Board to access important evidence, instead of being limited to evidence solely presented by the police.
It didn’t happen.
When the 2020 murder of George Floyd sparked nationwide calls to reduce the role and power of police in our communities, we pushed again to get those necessary tools.
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Once again, we saw political theater. The Tampa City Council and mayor’s office punted. They focused on who appoints members to the board instead of what Tampa residents wanted. Former council member John Dingfelder then suggested that the Tampa city charter should be amended to let Tampa residents decide.
It’s been eight years since the beginning of this process, and we are still waiting.
And while we waited, more egregious actions by the Tampa police continued to happen without community oversight. In 2021, we learned that the Tampa Police Department was collaborating with landlords on a program that identified renters who were arrested and targeted them and their families for eviction. Ninety-one percent of those targeted for evictions were Black, when Black people are only 23 percent of the city population. Without the right tools, the Citizens Review Board doesn’t have the teeth to get to the bottom of what happened.
In many Florida cities, a strong appetite exists for a healthy, effective and sustainable citizen review process of law enforcement actions. The latest poll on this reveals that 68 percent of Tampa voters agree that the Citizen Review Board should have independent counsel so that the board members do not have to rely on legal guidance from the city. Nearly 82 percent of voters believe that the City Council and mayor should not be the ones to decide whether the Citizen Review Board should have subpoena power and independent counsel. They believe it should be left up to the voters. But city governments, not just Tampa, are making the establishment of such boards difficult.
On May 23, the Tampa City Council will host a workshop to discuss whether or not a provision to amend the charter, thus giving the Citizen Review Board subpoena power and an independent attorney, will appear on the 2022 ballot.
This accountability is long overdue, and we urge the City Council to finally let Tampa residents decide.
Robin Lockett, who lives in Tampa, is Tampa Bay regional director of Florida Rising, an organization that aims to advance economic and racial justice across Florida.