Tampa's police community review board is a sham, and it was built to fail

For one, the CRB can only review closed internal affairs files given to it by the police.

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click to enlarge Tampa's police community review board is a sham, and it was built to fail
Photo by Ashley Dieudonne

The massive protests sweeping the nation in the wake of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis law enforcement have the power to be transformative. Just a week after protesters set fire to the police precinct where the killers worked, a majority of the Minneapolis City Council voted overwhelmingly to dismantle the police department.

“We’re safer without armed, unaccountable patrols supported by the state hunting black people.” said Kandace Montgomery, director of the Black Visions Collective. Against the odds, her group pushed to tear down what it sees as systems of oppression in the Twin Cities for years—it now appears on the verge of accomplishing that goal.

The concept of dismantling or defunding the police is often misunderstood and seems like a pipe dream to some in a city like Tampa where the current mayor is a former police chief with three decades in the police force.

“It really means cities should cut funding for military style weapons and surveillance that are prone to being abused,” James Shaw, Legal Panel Chair for the Greater Tampa Chapter of the ACLU told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay. “Defund the police is chantable shorthand for sophisticated policy to better public safety in our communities.” 

For example, In 2013 Camden, New Jersey scrapped its police department and reimagined it with a shift away from expensive police toys and over-policing tactics and toward addressing systemic problems within policing itself (although critics have documented that the change in overt policing gave way to a covert big brother surveillance state). That approach precipitated a sharp decline in crime in the city for several years in a row. 

Tampa’s police department has taken a markedly different approach. The department ramped up militarization in part thanks to a $50 million federal security grant for the 2012 Republican National Convention. A portion of that money went toward the purchase of chemical weapons, less-than-lethal ammunition, and an armored swat truck. Over $2 million was used to purchase surveillance cameras.

click to enlarge Tampa's police community review board is a sham, and it was built to fail
Photo by Javi Ortiz

Citizen oversight

Five years ago, a Tampa Bay Times investigation found that Tampa Police had a pattern targeting Black men for "Biking While Black.” The investigation said that in three years, Tampa police wrote 2,504 bike tickets; 80% of the tickets went to Black people. In response, a group of community leaders, clergy, and concerned neighbors came together to call for a Citizen Review Board of the Tampa Police Department.

The coalition was dubbed Tampa for Justice.

At the time, the anger in the community was bubbling over, which spurred a U.S. Justice Department investigation that eventually found what everyone already knew to be true: Laws were not equally enforced across the City of Tampa. If you were Black, you were more likely to get harassed and arrested by Tampa Police, and this fact strained the relationship between the police and the community. Absolutely nobody was shocked.

In 2018, as she eyed a run at the mayor’s office, Castor called the citations a mistake.

Like every police department, Tampa’s police department has issues. When it raided the house of Jason Westcott and murdered him over what turned out to be about $5 worth of weed in 2014, then lied about it, people should have been in the streets. When Arthur Green Jr. died while handcuffed and being sat on by a TPD officer while enduring a diabetic seizure in the middle of Central Avenue in Seminole Heights that same year-then lied about it, people should have been in the streets.

All of this occurred while Jane Castor was Chief of Police. These incidents, and others, should have weighed heavily into the mayor's race. Instead they got swept under the rug.

Tampa For Justice spent months collecting stories of residents from all walks of life, telling their experiences with Tampa Police. The coalition researched policing practices in other cities and reviewed the results of the Presidential Task Force on 21st Century Policing. The information was presented to city officials along with recommendations that would promote building trust and respect between Tampa neighborhoods and the police, ensuring transparency and accountability of the police, and creating a citizen-led board that could review and oversee Tampa’s policing policies.

After extensive conversations with the Tampa City Council in 2015, Tampa for Justice started gaining support for a Citizen Review Board (CRB) in which members would be appointed by each council member—that was much to the chagrin of the Tampa police union, which did everything in its power to monkey wrench the creation of the CRB (even at one point allegedly threatening City Council Chair and sole Black Council member, Frank Reddick with a throat slashing gesture in the Council chambers). 

Just as it looked like the CRB matter would be voted on and passed by City Council, then Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn stepped in.

Up to this point, Buckhorn had been highly dismissive of the idea, stating that he didn't want the Black Panthers to have a say in how police conduct their business and other dumb shit like that. Suddenly, he had a change of heart and was open to the idea with one caveat: He was in control. He quickly usurped the momentum for the board and announced he would create his own CRB and that he alone would appoint the members.

"Politics is a contact sport," Buckhorn told Laila Abdelaziz of Tampa for Justice on the day he made his announcement. "Why don't you go get yourself a nice boyfriend to occupy your time.” 

As expected, the board Buckhorn created was a total sham.

It was led by the police department with no independence. This CRB, which is still in place, can only review closed internal affairs files given to the board by the police. If the board disagrees with any particular police department decision, its only recourse is to dole out a slap on the wrist and a tepid "please try do a little better next time, OK?"

Undeterred, Tampa For Justice continued the push for a real, independent Citizen Review Board and vowed to launch a ballot initiative. Unfortunately, the initiative stalled, as most members of the coalition that had fought hard for months got burned out and turned to other work, including fighting back against America's new fascist president. 

Right now, a lot of policy ideas are floating around during a national crisis that has ripped the scab off decades of police violence against the Black communities of America. Each idea deserves careful consideration and robust debate in our communities. Citizen Review Boards, when allowed to function independently, are effective bodies that help generate healthy police policies and foster trust between communities that are policed and the police officers entrusted to protect those communities.

Tampa’s was purposely built to fail. 

“It’s time to recreate the Board.” Tampa City Councilman Orlando Gudes (a former TPD officer for more than two decades), told CL. Last week Gudes made a motion to revisit and restructure the police review board.

“It has no power to address the way the police department operates,” Gudes added.  “We need a board that works as intended so we can change the culture of law enforcement and gain the trust and respect from the community.” 

click to enlarge Tampa's police community review board is a sham, and it was built to fail
Photo by Ashley Dieudonne

Next steps
If Jane Castor and Chief Dugan really want to address the legitimate anger and pain being felt in our community as the marches against police violence rage on, perhaps not responding with more violence would be a good start. TPD should resist the temptation to fire upon peaceful protesters with chemical weapons and less-than lethal rounds as they did several times in the last week.

TPD should also immediately drop all charges against the more than 60 protesters arrested on “unlawful gathering” charges last Tuesday. 

CL left a voicemail and text message for former Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn. We also emailed Tampa Mayor Jane Castor and Chief Dugan. Only Dugan replied.

Dugan wrote that the current CRB has a public forum during each meeting and continues to encourage input from the community. The next CRB meeting is scheduled for June 23 at 6 p.m. at the Tampa Convention Center. Dugan also pointed to a survey conducted by the CRB and the Policing Project at NYU; it went out to some citizens seeking input on the Tampa Police Department. A contract between NYU and the City of Tampa says, “Total compensation all time and expenses under this Agreement shall not exceed $154,859.” CL asked TPD what the final cost was.

“The results [were] presented to the CRB,” Dugan wrote. CL has requested a copy of the results and a criteria of how respondents were selected. 

Dugan also said that an internal investigation is conducted by the Tampa Police Professional Standards Bureau each time an officer discharges a firearm. He confirmed that the only cases the CRB gets to look at are a list of closed internal reports handed over by TPD. Tampa for Justice previously asked that the CRB receive a report any time a TPD officer's firearm is discharged. It also asked that the board have the ability to vote on whether to investigate each report and the ability to investigate any complaints that the CRB receives from the public. 

When asked whether he’d support a board staffed by an independent attorney, independent investigators, and administrative staff, Dugan responded that TPD is “open to any suggestions that would prove to reassure the community our agency is transparent.” 

On Wednesday, June 10 the Hillsborough County NAACP and ACLU are holding a joint press conference calling for the restructuring of the board so that it has the independence from TPD and investigatory powers as originally intended.

“Reconfiguring the CRB would make a strong statement on the willingness of the police department to develop a relationship of mutual respect and trust with the community,” NAACP President Yvette Lewis told CL. “That relationship does not currently exist. It’s damaged. The residents of Tampa demand and deserve better.”

Full disclosure: The author of this post was a member of the Tampa For Justice group mentioned in the story.

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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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