Buckhorn announces citizen review board, activists skeptical

In response to loud public outcry for an independent body to hold police accountable, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn today announced he'll assemble a citizen review board to investigate instances of police force and other issues.

Tensions between police and African-Americans in low-income parts of the city have seen a spike in recent months, punctuated by a Tampa Bay Times exposé of a practice targeting African-Americans on bicycles.

In a press conference Friday afternoon, he said the 11-member panel will consist of nine permanent members and two alternates. Buckhorn himself will get to appoint nine of them (including the alternates) and City Council will appoint the other two. The panel will review cases in which officers' use of force was possibly unnecessary and other instances that would likely coincide with an internal audit, and will likely start taking shape in the coming months.

“We have always welcomed citizen input and value transparency as a core value of city government,’’ Buckhorn said in a press release. “This Citizen Review Board is a Tampa solution that addresses the concerns of our community while balancing the desire of our neighborhoods for a safe city. The Tampa Police Department has reduced crime 60 percent over the last ten years. We welcome the community’s input to make a great department even better.”

Buckhorn and Tampa Police Chief Eric Ward studied models used by numerous cities for such boards, and went with one similar — but not identical to, Tampa police spokesman Steve Hegarty pointed out — that of St. Petersburg.

Once the board is functional, it'll hold meetings examining various issues, from questionable use of force to tendencies of concern to a community.

If misconduct or some other kind of poor practice is discovered, the board can make recommendations to the police department on how to remedy them. Findings and recommendations will be available to the public.

“This is an exciting step forward for our Department, in terms of openness and transparency,’’ said Chief Ward in the press release. “I often say that we work in partnership with the community to keep our city safe. This is taking that partnership to a new level, and we welcome the feedback.”

(Find out more about the policy here.)

But a group of activists gathered outside the mayor's conference room was critical of the proposal.

“Everything's wrong with it," said Laila Abdelaziz, legislative and government affairs director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "It's not independent, because you have the majority of the board members being appointed by the mayor, there's no checks and balances there. The whole purpose of creating a civilian review board is to create checks and balances in our city, of our police department.”

She added that she would like the panel to have subpoena power, one of the factors she believes would give the board "teeth."

Tampa residents or business owners who are over 18 and fit certain eligibility standards (no, you can neither be a cop nor a career criminal) are welcome to apply. Applicants will have to undergo background checks,  and during their tenure on the board they will be asked to go on ride-alongs and attend Tampa Police Citizens Academy, which helps members of the public understand the day-to-day experiences and dilemmas of police officers.

Terms for board members last four years and, according to an overview of the program, are set to start Dec. 1.

Hegarty said those concerned with the makeup of the board should try to get their interests represented on it.

“I hope that everybody goes at it with an open mind,” he said. “If you want to be on the review board, than you ought to apply.”


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