DOJ officials tell Tampa police to curb practice of targeting black people on bikes

click to enlarge Tampa Mayor Bob Bukhorn talks about a controversial city policing practice that has been toned down. - GARETH KELLY
Gareth Kelly
Tampa Mayor Bob Bukhorn talks about a controversial city policing practice that has been toned down.

At a press conference at the Department of Justice office in downtown Tampa, Mayor Bob Buckhorn, Tampa Police Chief Eric Ward and other key law enforcement officials discussed the long-awaited and at times contentious Department of Justice report into the City’s policing of people riding bikes, specifically members of the African American community.

After the Tampa Bay Times in April 2015 published an investigative piece suggesting Tampa PD used bicycle stops and citations as a pretext to stop, question and search bicyclists in high crime and often black communities. The piece essentially alleged racial profiling within the department.

In the wake of the piece's publishing, former Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor, with support from Buckhorn and other city officials, turned to the federal government and asked for help “to investigate charges that racial profiling was behind the disparate number of police stops of African – American bicycle riders,” the 72-page report said.

According to the report “between January 1, 2014 and August 30, 2015 Tampa officers documented 9,121 bicycle stops, 73 percent of them involving Black bicyclists and 26 percent involving white bicyclists.” The report acknowledges the population of Tampa is 26 percent black and 63 percent white, confirming the existence of stark racial disparities in bicycle law enforcement.

All along, Tampa PD has maintained its bicycle enforcement policy was designed to improve bicycle safety, reduce bike theft and prevent incidents in areas of high crime throughout the city as part of a "proactive" policing strategy

After the Times article was published bicycle stops and citations issued by Tampa PD fell dramatically. However, there was no discernible change in crime. Along with other data including crash statistics, bike thefts and specific areas targeted, the report concluded, “the TPD’s emphasis on bicycling enforcement, by all indications, appears to have been an honest effort to improve community safety in the areas most in need. The bottom-line appears to be that the TPD burdened black bicyclists by disproportionately stopping them in the name of benefiting black communities by increasing their public safety.”

Without any real accurate ridership numbers of cyclists throughout Tampa the investigations team used bicycle crash data as a means to ascertain the racial makeup of all the cities riders.

But not all within the community were happy with the report.

As the press conference carried on, members of the Black Lives Matter movement protested outside of the DOJ building, alleging they were denied entrance into the press conference.

When asked whether those affected by the policy deserved an apology, Mayor Buckhorn responded “I am never going to apologize for being aggressive in the crime fight. It's just not going to happen," the mayor said. "I don't think it warrants an apology. I do think it warrants corrective action.”

The report or lack thereof and lengthy delay was a hot topic at recent Tampa City Council meetings, with Councilwoman Lisa Montelione wanting to know what the delay was. Present at the press conference, Montelione said she believed an apology was warranted.

“Anytime that someone is on the receiving end of a question that may upset them, who has done nothing wrong, who now questions their own ability to ride their bike or walk the sidewalks of their own neighborhood. the individuals who feel they did not deserve the treatment they got should be apologized to,” she said.

While the report's conclusions suggested there was no intended malice or inherent racism within Tampa PD it did make a list of 22 recommendations for improvements moving forward. Reducing bike stops, greater monitoring of racial disparities and greater community engagement were three such recommendations.

Both Mayor Buckhorn and Tampa PD Chief Eric Ward vowed to not only implement the reports recommendations but said many were already being used.

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