Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn has gotten a sensitive discussion off on the wrong foot by jumping the gun and unilaterally creating a citizens review board to examine complaints against the Tampa Police Department. This was a community decision to make. Buckhorn's power play sets the wrong tone, and it undermines the panel's mission of enhancing relations between the police and the public.
Buckhorn's abrupt move on Friday was a pre-emptive strike just days before the Tampa City Council was to discuss the issue. Council Chairman Frank Reddick called for a citizens review board in the wake of a Tampa Bay Times investigation that found Tampa police wrote more tickets for bicycle infractions than four of Florida's other biggest cities combined. And 80 percent of those tickets went to black cyclists in a city where black residents make up 25 percent of the population.
The police tactics — which dropped off suddenly after the series was published — amounted to racial profiling and harassment. Buckhorn has defended the practice, and he moved on the review board only after pressure from the City Council and activists made clear he had a political problem.
Given his staunch defense of the indefensible, and the calls from a broad cross-section in the community for some type of panel to review police conduct and training, Buckhorn should have reached out and solicited input on the board's purpose and makeup. Police Chief Eric Ward, who is appointed by the mayor, had been scheduled for weeks to appear at Thursday's council meeting to suggest a framework for moving forward. Activists floated a plan last week that called for a much more robust review panel, with the power to take witness testimony and a role in police hiring. But instead of working with all sides and looking for common ground, the mayor signed an executive order creating a panel he largely appoints before flying to Ireland on a trade mission.
In substance, Buckhorn's plan is a decent starting point. It calls for the review board to examine use-of-force or misconduct cases after any legal or disciplinary action has been taken. Though some activists want the panel to intervene earlier in misconduct cases, state law and the police union contract provide officers with due process protections that cannot (and should not) be overlooked.
The mayor's plan for an 11-member board could stand some improvements. The City Council should have more than two appointments. The qualifications for appointment also look skewed to result in a board that tilts in favor of the police and the administration. These are all important areas that could have been improved had the mayor worked with the council instead of around it.
A review board that provides even nonbinding advice to the chief and the mayor can still be valuable. And despite a pinched legal argument from the mayor's attorney, the council has plenty of authority under Tampa's city charter to appoint its own board to review police operations. But this conversation needs to shift from who has the authority over the panel to who has the best ideas for how the panel would operate. If the purpose here is to bridge any credibility gap between police officers and the public, then the mayor, council members and activists should regroup and work together toward a more inclusive approach.