At its heated and at times messy May 20 meeting, Tampa City Council finally voted on an ordinance that would mark the first significant change to a Citizens Review Board (CRB) which activists have called a sham that was built to fail since its inception in 2015.
The 5-2 vote—where Councilmen Luis Viera and Charlie Miranda voted no—followed a year of increased calls for police reform and accountability in the name of George Floyd. It also came after nearly a year of back and forth between the community, ACLU, NAACP, council, Mayor Jane Castor and the Police Benevolent Association (PBA) over what changes should and shouldn’t be made to the CRB.
The PBA is the union representing Tampa police officers. The CRB is a volunteer board tasked with overseeing complaints about potential misconduct by members of the TPD.
Changes included in the ordinance would, in part, let the CRB participate in the TPD hiring process for new officers and give the board the ability to review closed internal investigations where both “no discipline was imposed” and “discipline other than suspension, demotion or termination was imposed.” The ordinance also calls for an assistant city attorney to serve as the legal advisor to the CRB.
The changes would also alter the makeup of the board by giving council control over control over seven of the 11 appointments to the CRB, with the mayor getting four, including one reserved for a member of the NAACP. Currently, the mayor selects five members and the council four (with additional two only used as alternates).
The ordinance is set for a second reading on June 17, but Castor has been openly opposed to giving council a majority of the appointments on the CRB.
So hours after council’s vote, Castor and Police Chief Brian Dugan—flanked by PBA President Darla Portman and union spokesperson Danny Alvarez—held their own press conference where Castor announced her own immediate changes to the CRB, including tweaks already included in the ordinance voted on by council (interview panel, complaint filing and tracking and re-assignment of a city attorney to the CRB).
In their press conference, Castor and Dugan cited police officers’ desire to get closure on what’s going to happen to the CRB as a reason for the sudden action, but closure is exactly what council moved towards when it voted 5-2 on the ordinance earlier that day (council also voted 6-1 on a similar CRB change in February, only to get kickback from City Attorney Gina Grimes).
When CL asked Castor how her immediate changes would affect the ordinance set for a second reading next month, the mayor replied that council could move forward, but that its ordinance would be ineffective, adding that, “They would have to design their own CRB, without the participation of the police.”
Janelle McGregor, spokesperson for the mayor, cited a 2015 executive order from then-mayor Bob Buckhorn—who used that very order to create what many call today’s “toothless” review board—to justify Castor’s ability to executively and immediately make changes to the CRB.
At their press conference, Castor and Dugan also continually mentioned opposition to subpoena power for the CRB. But subpoena power isn’t even mentioned in the ordinance council voted on last week. In fact, the only time subpoena power was even mentioned during the May 20 meeting was in the context of a potential February workshop to figure out whether or not voters could vote on that issue in an election. And in a 95-Tweet thread posted over the weekend, James Shaw, Jr., Legal Panel Chair of the ACLU of Florida, wrote that the only thing that’s being discussed in that workshop is whether or not voters can decide if the CRB can have its own truly independent attorney.
Spokesperson McGregor has yet to respond after being asked again about why Castor continued to mention subpoena power in her May 20 press conference (we’ll update this post when she does). In a Monday text message to CL, Councilman John Dingfelder called the repeated mentions of subpoena power and independent counsel “red herrings."
While Dingfelder said it’s true that many folks in the community believe that it is important for a review board to have subpoena power, “The City Attorney told us 10 times that Council did not have the authority to include that in the ordinance. She said the only option was to let the voters decide that issue by referendum, so perhaps that will be Council's direction next February, to let the citizens decide.”
In a Monday press conference outside City Hall, Julius Adams, a Legal Panel member of the Greater Tampa Chapter of the ACLU of Florida, told CL and other reporters that he, too, was frustrated by the continued mention of subpoena powers despite them not being in the ordinance passed last week.
Yvette Lewis, president of the NAACP’s Hillsborough Branch who gave several impassioned comments at Monday’s press conference, forcefully said talk of subpoena powers was a “diversion and distraction” from the big conversation about accountability for a police force authorized to to use lethal force, surveillance and other tactics in its policing of the community.
Connie Burton, a co-founder of the Tampa For Justice group that initially pushed for the creation of the CRB in the wake of then-Police Chief Castor's "Biking While Black" controversy, called for Mayor Castor to have respect for the process of revamping the CRB.
"The mayor is not the chief of the police, and her continually wanting to have that dual role is slowing this process down," Burton said. The community leader pointed to other municipalities moving in fast forward to address systemic racism and said Tampa is no different. Burton reiterated a point Lewis made in saying that all sides have made compromises to get to the CRB ordinance voted on last week.
"We would have loved to have stiffen this ordinance to give more power to the people," Burton added. "But if we have to take baby steps to get us to what we are trying to achieve, we are not going to allow it to be unrailed, simply because the mayor has some underlying fear or because she wants to have this dual role of being authoritarian over all of the people, and all the decisions over government."
But still, local TV stations—without checking the mayor and chief on their comments about subpoena power in relation to the ordinance passed on May 20—beamed Castor and Dugan’s press conference into the eyeballs of Tampeños everywhere last week. Other outlets even ran with Castor’s unchecked comments about subpoena power in stories recapping the NAACP’s Monday press conference.
“In my honest opinion, it comes down to fear mongering and trying to create a problem where there's not one,” Adams said of the distraction. “You have to think about why. Why is this so difficult? To have an independent CRB?”
In a phone call with CL, Councilman Bill Carlson made clear that at this point, the only difference between the CRB proposals by the mayor and council is the makeup of the board. “All the conflict on Thursday was about the mayor getting one less [appointment] on the board,” he said.
In one of his few comments during the May 20 city council meeting, Councilman Guido Maniscalco again reiterated that council was not talking about subpoena power, adding that council members are elected officials who’ve earned the public trust. He asked why councilmen should not be trusted to make sound selections for the CRB. “The city is not going to fall apart if we get a couple more appointments to this board,” Maniscalco said.
Councilchair Orlando Gudes—a Tampa police officer for 26 years, who initially called for changed to the CRB last summer—responded to Maniscalco right away saying, “I can tell you what it is, Mr. Maniscalco. It’s power and fear.”
But even with the changes set to get a second reading on June 17 the CRB still wouldn’t have power to discipline officers. At the end of the day, the CRB could only politely suggest what the chief should do with officers found to have acted negligently.
Today’s Tampa is a city where the current mayor is a former police chief who in three years saw her officers write 2,504 bike tickets with 80% of the citations going to Black people. It’s the same city whose current police chief went on “Fox & Friends” to say a block party might have been an ambush despite neighbors saying they complained about the party previously.
As ACLU volunteer Shaw said in public comment during the May 20 council meeting, folks looking for a stronger CRB don’t hate cops. They just want the community to be able to have some oversight over one of the most powerful entities in the city. But after a year of calling for change, it’s still not clear if the mayor will let the community have a bigger say in how it oversees its police department.
“I know the public is hungry for change, and I know the police are hungry to move on, but at the end of the day, we have to make sure we satisfy everybody's needs, so we can have a good CRB,” Gudes told CL on Tuesday. “It’s going to be interesting down the road.”
Support local journalism in these crazy days. Our small but mighty team is working tirelessly to bring you up to the minute news on how Coronavirus is affecting Tampa and surrounding areas. Please consider making a one time or monthly donation to help support our staff. Every little bit helps.
Subscribe to our newsletter and follow @cl_tampabay on Twitter.