Tampa’s police budget grew more than any other major U.S. city, says report

Notably, Tampa was also specifically mentioned as an example of a city that has seen “spikes in crime” despite increases in police spending.

click to enlarge Protesters met by Tampa Police officers in College Hill on May 31. - Photo by Dave Decker
Photo by Dave Decker
Protesters met by Tampa Police officers in College Hill on May 31.

Last year, following the police murders of Black Americans such as George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, calls to “defund the police” were prevalent in just about every major city in the nation.

Consequently, many of the U.S.' 50 largest metros responded to this movement by reducing police budgets—except for a handful of cities like Tampa. 

A recent Bloomberg report found that the city of Tampa had increased its police department budget by 8.6% for the fiscal year of 2021. Based on CityLab data, this was the largest police budget increase among all 50 cities included in the analysis, followed by Fresno, California; San Diego; Sacramento; and Atlanta.

Among cities analyzed, Tampa also saw the biggest boost to its general budget, with an increase of 11.9%. Fresno, California saw the second-largest general budget boost at 10.4%, followed by a 7.3% general budget boost in Seattle, Washington.

The report adds that out of the 42 cities where Democrats picked up more votes in the 2020 election cycle, Tampa was identified as one of 24 that moved to increase police spending for the 2021 fiscal year.

In August, Tampa City Council unanimously approved Tampa Mayor Jane Castor’s proposal to increase the Tampa Police Department’s budget by $13 million for 2021 to nearly $176 million in total.

Bloomberg’s reporting shows that Tampa wasn’t alone in its budget increase. Twenty-six of the 50 cities included in the analysis moved to increase their police budgets.

But not all of the cities’ police departments received similar boosts. Data compiled by Bloomberg CityLab shows that several cities with strong activist networks—including New York City, Minneapolis, Seattle, and Denver—saw cuts in their police budget spending. 

In Austin, Texas for instance, a broad coalition of grassroots groups such as Communities of Color United, Austin Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), Austin Justice Coalition, and even some elected officials organized around cuts to the city’s police department. And it showed: last August, the Austin City Council unanimously voted to cut the city’s police budget by 33%—or $150 million—over the next year, with $20 million in funds to be immediately redirected towards violence prevention, food access, and abortion access programs. The rest of the funding is expected to go towards civilian functions and investment in a “Reimagine Safety Fund" for alternative forms of public safety over the next year.

Bloomberg also identified Tampa as an example of a city that has seen “spikes in crime” despite increased police spending. 

According to the Tampa Bay Times, Tampa saw a 36% rise in violent crime during the first five months of 2020, compared to the same period in 2019. Overall, the city saw a 10% increase in violent crime, which is defined by the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) as any of four offenses: aggravated assault, rape, robbery, and murder and non-negligent manslaughter. 

The increase followed a yearslong trend of budget boosts for the Tampa Police Department. The increase came despite calls from local protestors, who repeatedly issued demands for the city to cut funding from the police department and reinvest those funds into the community. These calls were spurred by the murders of Floyd and Taylor, and have been bolstered by the murders of Jonas Joseph and Dominique Mulkey—both 26-years old—by TPD in the past year. 

Before Mayor Castor—who was previously TPD's chief for nearly six years—shared her proposal for the budget increase, and in the months since, community members continued their calls on the city’s elected officials to reallocate Tampa’s police department budget and demand accountability for police violence.

At the time, Tampa city officials pointed to gang activity as a major contributing factor for this increase, according to the Times’ reporting. Much of the violent crime documented by the Tampa Police Department involved gun violence—an issue that has persisted throughout the Tampa Bay region.

Castor, for her part, has boasted the city’s success in reducing crime by a reported 80% over the last 17 years, which she attributes to efforts by the police department to “forge police-community trust.” According to crime data from the FBI, the number of violent crimes reported by TPD dropped from 5,733 in 2003 to 1,598 in 2018. The same data shows a slight increase from 1,598 violence crimes reported in 2018 to 1,622 in 2019. Nationally, both violent crime rates and the number of police officers have decreased since 2013, according to data from the U.S. Justice Department. 

Creative Loafing Tampa Bay reached out to Mayor Jane Castor for comment on Bloomberg’s reporting, but as of publication, her office has not responded to our request. 

Debate over benefits of generously-funded police departments

The root causes of changes in crime rates are too complex to fully hash out here. Tampa’s increased violent crime last year, and the mayor’s devotion to boosting the resources the Tampa Police Department has at its disposal to police communities, does provoke questions about what can effectively address the root causes of local violent crime.

Dr. Christy Lopez, a law professor at Georgetown University, told Bloomberg that hiring more officers doesn’t necessarily translate to reduced crime. Although Tampa police were not directly implicated in the city’s surge in violent crime last year—according to reporting by the Times—use of force data from the department has painted an alarming picture—certainly one that complicates the notion that a well-funded police force translates to a stronger public safety system.

Data acquired by CL last year revealed a 24% increase in use of force from 2017 to 2019 under current Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan—who is currently quarantining after testing positive for the coronavirus earlier this week. 

Further breakdowns of TPD data, which came from a 2019 Response to Resistance report, showed a 41% increase in K-9 (police dog) bites, a 24% increase in punches and kicks, and a 224% increase in the use of chemical agents—a tactic we saw utilized in action at several Black Lives Matter protests last year.

Reporting on the benefits of a robust and generously-funded police department have sparked greater doubt and uncertainty following last week’s right-wing insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C, where dozens of rioters stormed the government building and infiltrated its halls.

Law enforcement officers across the country are being investigated and suspended for acts that range from demonstrating support for the insurgent mob—composed of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and generally disaffected Donald Trump supporters—to suspected involvement in the insurrection. 

According to new statistics from the U.S. Crisis Monitor, a nonprofit that monitors police violence, police in the U.S. were three times more likely to use force against demonstrators at left wing protests than those at right wing protests. 

Mixed takes have emerged on how to appropriately frame the participation of federal and local law enforcement agencies in the Capitol riot: as heroes, victims, or those complicit in violence against the state. Those who have long been critical of U.S. policing systems point towards historical examples of law enforcement’s complicity in slave labor, right wing militancy, and white supremacist groups to argue against the depiction of law enforcement as agents for justice. 

Critics of policing have also come out against calls from liberal politicians like President-elect Joe Biden and Republicans like to crack down on protesting by further criminalizing protest and increasing public surveillance.

What's next

The Tampa City Council unanimously approved Castor’s proposal for a $176 million police department budget last fall. But what’s to come for how that money might be spent, and how the city plans to respond to rates of increased violence and calls for reforms?

Nearly one million dollars of city funding—and an extra $600,000 in federal grant money—has been allocated towards the purchase of 650 body worn cameras for Tampa police officers. The Tampa Police Department has implemented, or is on track to implement, all eight policies of the #8Can’tWait initiative launched by Campaign Zero, a nationwide police reform campaign. This campaign advocates for mandating body-worn cameras, restrictive use of force policies, and a duty to intervene for officers who witness misconduct by their colleagues among other reforms.

Last June, Mayor Castor claimed that the city had already implemented all eight recommended policing policies. Confusion about whether Castor was correct on this front ensued, however, based on the #8Can’tWait campaign’s analysis of Tampa’s policing policies.

That same month, Castor announced the launch of a new task force on policing, composed of 40 members of the community, invited by Castor to share input on policing in the city in a workshop format. These workshops, and additional surveys of University of South Florida (USF) students on Tampa police conduct, were led by USF associate professor of criminology Dr. Bryanna Fox and her research team, which gathered and analyzed data to present to the community in August.

Crisis-intervention training for TPD, which is a form of de-escalation training for handling crises involving mental illness, has been on the agenda for the department since 2019. Spearheading this training program are the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay and behavioral health provider Gracepoint. 

Tampa police chief Brian Dugan also announced plans last summer for a Community Advisory Team, composed of a “diverse team” of community members selected by the department to provide input directly to Dugan himself on police conduct. Criminal justice activists, as well as  volunteer lawyers from the local ACLU chapter, have called on the city to strengthen the city’s Citizen Review Board (CRB) by, for example, granting independent investigatory powers and allowing the City Council to have greater say over board appointments.

Tampa City Council member John Dingfelder proposed that the city invest $1 million into the development of an alternative crisis response program which would see mental health workers respond to nonviolent 911 calls, potentially alongside police officers. This came after St. Petersburg announced its decision to launch its own crisis response program last July, which is now set to begin its initial trial period. Both programs are modeled after mobile crisis intervention teams in cities such as Eugene, Oregon; Dallas, Texas; and Houston, Texas—although the makeup of these teams, and law enforcement’s role in these various programs, vary.

Both Mayor Castor and Chief Dugan have repeatedly asserted a commitment towards improving community relations with the police department. Ideally, by not pepper-spraying Black Lives Matter protestors, doxing young single mothers, or stating that individuals like George Floyd “had to get murdered” for larger crowds to show up to the city’s Citizen Review Board meetings. 

Will these reforms effectively reduce the city’s crime rates? With a looming eviction crisis, widespread economic insecurity, and other complicating factors associated with local crime rates, that’s yet to be seen.

Local police abolitionists say the police department can’t be reformed. Mayor Castor and the Tampa Police Department say there’s more work to be done.

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McKenna Schueler

McKenna Schueler is a freelance journalist based in Tampa, Florida. She regularly writes about labor, politics, policing, and behavioral health. You can find her on Twitter at @SheCarriesOn and send news tips to [email protected].

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