A year after George Floyd’s murder, Tampa activists navigate task forces and slow moving review board changes

A vote on the CRB is set for today, May 20.

click to enlarge Photo by Frankie Sanchez. Design by Jack Spatafora.
Photo by Frankie Sanchez. Design by Jack Spatafora.

On the afternoon of Saturday, May 30, 2020, five days after the murder of George Floyd, the long simmering frustrations over decades of institutionalized racism and inequality in Tampa hit a boiling point. A peaceful march against police practices that started in Temple Terrace earlier that day devolved into violent clashes with riot cops by the time it hit North Tampa’s Suitcase City. Tear gas and flash grenades filled the air as businesses were looted and burned. “The language of the unheard,” as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously described similar riots in 1967, was in full effect in Tampa that day and it kickstarted a much needed conversation in the city.

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The events of that evening and the ensuing zeitgeist summer of protests have burned into our community’s collective memory but as we look back a year later, what exactly has changed in terms of concrete policy addressing systemic racism and police conduct in Tampa? In June of 2020, Creative Loafing Tampa Bay reported on the renewed push for a Citizen Review Board and newly formed Mayor’s Task Force on Community Policing that were put forth as vehicles to address the racial justice issues at the heart of the George Floyd protests and put them into policy. Here’s a look at where we stand with each of these issues today.

Citizen Review Board 2.0

On June 4, 2020, Tampa city councilman Orlando Gudes, a retired police officer, called for a complete revamp of the Citizen Review Board (CRB) for the Tampa Police Department, a board initially proposed after TPD’s discriminatory “Biking While Black'' policies were exposed in a Tampa Bay Times report documenting the ticketing of thousands of black bicyclists. The exposé prompted a Department of Justice investigation that found TPD had abused its authority with a long pattern of racist practices

The CRB grudgingly created by former Mayor Buckhorn by executive order in 2015 came about after a protracted battle with activists from Tampa For Justice and was immediately dismissed as a sham as it gave the mayor alone power to appoint members to the Board and allowed TPD to dictate what cases would be available for review. 

“My intention in calling for reform was to make the Board less of a rubber stamp and provide more independence and transparency,” Gudes told CL recently of his proposal to remake the CRB. A year later, after months of back and forth drafts between city council, the ACLU, and the mayor’s office, the council is poised to vote on an ordinance that provides more power to the Board. Among notable changes if approved: The CRB would participate in the interview process for new officers, and make recommendations on hiring criteria and standards. Complaints received from the public would be shared with the CRB and the board would be able to review “matters of importance” and make recommendations despite still not being able to review open cases. Additionally, the majority of appointments would now be in the hands of city council with the mayor having four, one of which would be a member of the NAACP. 

Two key changes proposed by the ACLU—an independent attorney to advise the board and subpoena power for investigations—have been flatly refused by the Castor administration and are likely to be placed on the ballot for Tampa voters to decide in 2022. Castor was the police chief who oversaw TPD’s “Biking While Black” operation.

This doesn’t sit well with some in the community who’ve spent the last six year pushing for a strong CRB that would give the community a voice in the way it is policed. “The issue of an independent attorney and independent investigative power, including subpoena power, are crucial for the CRB to function effectively and have credibility in the community.” Jamie Klapholz, a volunteer attorney with the ACLU and member of Tampa for Justice, told CL. “It’s incredibly disappointing to see city council punt its legislative responsibility to the voters, but I am hopeful that one way or another, Tampa will have a functional police oversight board at some point in my lifetime.” 

The latest draft ordinance is scheduled to be presented to the Tampa City Council on Thursday, May 20.

click to enlarge Tampa Mayor Jane Castor after approaching a protest outside Tampa City Hall on June 2, 2020. - Marlo Miller
Marlo Miller
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor after approaching a protest outside Tampa City Hall on June 2, 2020.

The mayor’s task force on policing

On Juneteenth, 2020, under increasing pressure from the community, Jane Castor held a press conference to announce her plans to form a Task Force on Policing to “listen intently, practice empathy, and take meaningful steps toward enhancing our police department’s interactions with the public.” The roughly 40 invited members of the task force were hand-picked by Castor’s administration and strict rules were defined on who could participate and how. (Initially, no reporters were allowed at the task force meetings and the mayor herself attempted to remove this reporter from the room). 

The exercise was largely an academic affair collecting data for the USF criminology department and was organized around focus group discussions on topics pulled from President Obama’s 2015 Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Attendees ranked their views on police based on things like “Building Trust & Legitimacy,” “Technology & Social Media,” and “Training & Education.” 

At the first meeting, task force members shared story after story of rough experiences with police as plain clothes officers at their table calmly listened and nodded but refused to acknowledge the existence of structural racism within the department. A gaggle of USF graduate students feverishly took notes. The data collected from these sessions and from an initial survey given to task force participants formed the basis of the findings presented by USF criminology professor Dr. Bryanna Fox last August. Unsurprisingly, longstanding feelings of fear, distrust, and lack of justice were recurring themes. The City of Tampa posted these findings on their website with a brief explanation of what actions had been taken to address each issue. Responses ranged from vague promises to expand, reorganize, or incorporate suggestions into policy to the City’s contention that many community recommendations were already a part of TPD policy, they had simply neglected to inform the public. “We’ll do a better job of that,” seemed to be the message. “The website is now updated and easier to navigate. Make sure to check it out.”

Some participants came away with the notion that the task force was largely a public relations stunt in the mold of Buckhorn’s toothless Citizen Review Board. “It was a missed opportunity,” Nestor Ortiz, a local community activist who often raised pointed questions during the meetings, told CL “I came in with an open mind but left feeling this was all part of a script to usurp energy and enthusiasm from a movement demanding a genuine discussion on systemic racism and substantive change.” 

Gretchen Cothron, President of the Greater Tampa chapter of the ACLU told CL she felt like the task force had potential but was ultimately disappointing. “It felt like it was all for show,” she said. “I felt used.”

The last task force meeting was held April 20, coincidentally, the same day the Derrick Chauvin verdict was announced. News outlets were invited via a last minute press advisory from the city’s marketing department, perhaps an indication that the event was intended as more of a press event to highlight the city’s progress on addressing recommendations from the task force than a meeting for community members. The inclusion of task force members (most of whom had dropped out by April) seemed to be something of an afterthought. Dr. Fox opened the meeting by reading off TPD’s carefully crafted progress updates directly from the City’s website followed by Mayor Castor and Chief Dugan rattling off a list of accomplishments by “the greatest police department in the nation.” The few task force members left on the Zoom call appeared unmoved. 

click to enlarge Protests moving through the University of Tampa on June 6, 2020. - Ashley Dieudonne
Ashley Dieudonne
Protests moving through the University of Tampa on June 6, 2020.

Multilateral law enforcement talks

On June 9, 2020, the NAACP and the ACLU held a joint press conference in Tampa Park Plaza calling on a completely revamped and independent Citizen Review Board as well as a registry of police discipline, expanded use of body cameras, and more direct lines of communication between the community and law enforcement. Shortly after the event, Police Chief Brian Dugan contacted Hillsborough County NAACP President Yvette Lewis to set up a meeting with all local law enforcement agencies and have a frank talk about each of the policy proposals put forth by the community. “Maybe we need to start listening more,” he said, “so we can get to where we need to be.”

The meeting occurred at the Columbia Restaurant on June 18 and featured representatives from all five law enforcement agencies in the County as well as members of the ACLU and President of the Tampa Police Benevolent Association Darla Portman. By all accounts, the meeting was productive and resulted in an initial set of policies that were uniformly agreed to by each agency including independent investigations of police shootings and in custody deaths, the duty to intervene when officers witness other officers using excessive force or violating standard operating procedures, and uniformly implemented de-escalation and crowd control trainings.

The Tampa Bay Times hailed the meeting as a breakthrough moment and plans were made to continue the talks on a monthly basis in order to build upon the progress of the first meeting. But out of the spotlight and without the urgency of daily street protests, it soon became clear that there was less willingness to hold the coalition together. Law enforcement officials took offense at recommendations proposed by the ACLU to publish a “do not call list” for officers deemed too untrustworthy to testify in court and subsequent meetings fizzled out. “We have every intention of resuming the monthly talks,” NAACP President Yvette Lewis told CL. “We just need to work out the kinks first.”

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About The Author

Kelly Benjamin

Kelly Benjamin is a a community activist and longtime Creative Loafing Tampa Bay contributor who first appeared in the paper in 1999. He also ran for Tampa City Council in 2011...
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