The first meeting of Tampa's police review board was refreshingly free of the rancor that surrounded the creation of the panel last summer. That is no great achievement given that this week's session was organizational in nature, but it creates an opportunity to bring a fresh start to this divisive debate. The challenge now, as the panel begins to deal with substantive issues over police actions and policies, is for the board and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn to craft a relevant role for the group.
The initial meeting was largely a housekeeping session, as the board chose a chairman and members learned of their obligation to operate openly under Florida's Sunshine Law. Only one person spoke during the meeting's public comment period, a far cry from the packed room during last year's City Council discussion over why and how to form the panel.
The 11-person board, with members separately chosen by Buckhorn and the council, includes a good cross-section of the community and includes residents with experience in local government, the law and civil rights causes. The mayor and council deserve credit; their appointments raise expectations for a group that critics of the Tampa Police Department had all but written off only months ago. The most fervent supporters of creating the board argued it needed subpoena power and the ability to shape the outcome of active disciplinary cases to be effective. That sweeping authority was always a stretch, legally and practically, and a nonstarter for the mayor. But the makeup of this group shows that the panel is not merely window dressing.
The proof, of course, will be in the work product. Many of these members are political insiders, and they will need to accept that their first allegiance is to credibly examine community concerns with the police and to chart how a department under the direct authority of the mayor can better serve the public.
Buckhorn's commitment also will be tested. He never saw a need for this panel and took pains to poke critics who voiced genuine concerns over the police department's treatment of blacks and heavy-handed tactics in largely minority neighborhoods. Coming after a Tampa Bay Times report that chronicled how the TPD had harassed black cyclists for minor infractions, the mayor's breezy dismissal of the council's request for a police board set the stage for this panel to fail. His solid appointments signal that Buckhorn will take the review board seriously. That's a good strategy for keeping a political problem from spiraling out of control.
This board cannot be seen as siding with any one constituency. It also has a role in examining a range of issues far beyond any allegations of police abuse that may arise. Officers, for example, are stopping fewer bicyclists, a welcome change from last year, and one that's come about as the federal government investigates Tampa's bike-stopping practices. This board also could be helpful in monitoring the city's shift to making low-level drug charges civil infractions rather than criminal cases. Board members and the mayor need to show that this panel can be robust and independent — and effective at getting any reforms of police practices into place in a timely and orderly manner.