Tampa's police review board wants voters to decide if it should have subpoena power

The recommendation came after community members spoke out about a need for closer monitoring of TPD behavior.

click to enlarge Tampa's police review board wants voters to decide if it should have subpoena power
Tampa's Citizen Police Review Board listens to a member of the community tell them about TPD's indiscretions.
Last night, Tampa's Citizen Police Review Board (CRB) voted to recommend that city council put the subject of subpoena power for the board up to the voters.

The CRB recommended that city council put the measure on an upcoming ballot, and the motion passed with a vote of 6-3.

Subpoena power could help make the board more effective in its job of reviewing cases of police misconduct. It would allow the CRB to call for witness testimony—but not from the cops themselves, due to Florida law—and grant the board access to video footage, along with other types of evidence.

The subpoena power could give teeth to a board which has been called a "sham" for its current lack of ability to review cases with materials and testimony beyond what Tampa police provide. Across the country, ample evidence has shown that cops routinely lie, and often participate in a "blue wall of silence" about misconduct, rather than hold each other accountable.

First-term CRB member Carlos Valdes, appointed to the board by city council, made the motion to send the recommendation to council, after several members of the community expressed their concerns about lack of accountability for TPD.

"One of our roles is to build trust with the community as it relates to Tampa PD and the community," Valdes said. "We did hear today from several community members, and we have a lot of data in front of us that was presented to us....and I think it's critical to have that input."

CRB member Irene Guy, who voted "no" on Valdes' motion, argued against subpoena power during the meeting.

After the meeting, Guy told CL that she voted no because she wanted to be sure that the entire board understands when subpoena power would be used before voting in favor of it.

"If the whole board is knowledgeable about the circumstances [under which] we would use it [subpoena power], then I don't have a problem with it," she said.

Guy, who has a background in real estate and is serving her second term on the CRB after being appointed by city council, said that she was also concerned by language in a survey about the CRB that was sent to the community.

The survey was conducted in June 2021 by Public Policy Polling on behalf of the ACLU's Greater Tampa Chapter. In it, a sample of 590 residents overwhelmingly supported subpoena power and an independent attorney for the CRB. Last month, the CRB voted against having its own independent attorney.

During the meeting, Guy pointed out language in the the survey that said, "Tampa Citizen Review Board investigates complaints of police misconduct," when technically, the board currently reviews closed TPD internal affairs cases presented by the department.

"I'm concerned about the language on the survey, because it didn't say what we really do," Guy said.

James Michael Shaw Jr., Legal Panel Chair for ACLU Greater Tampa Chapter, argued in favor of the subpoena power, and came under questioning by Guy during the meeting. He told her and the rest of the CRB that he couldn't understand why the board wouldn't want to have more tools to examine the cases presented to them.

The CRB includes 11 members, with the mayor and city council appointing five members each and the local NAACP selecting one subject to both mayoral and council approval.

Subpoena power could give the board a greater opportunity to pursue its own evidence, rather than just rely on the word of TPD—an organization caught in at least 19 scandals last year and currently under federal investigation for its crime free multi-housing program.

But Guy remained adamant in her stance.

"I don't believe it [subpoena power] is a good thing to have because I am not policing the police," Guy told CL.

However, the community members who showed up to the meeting said that TPD needs more monitoring by the CRB. Members of Tampa Bay Community Action Committee, Students for a Democratic Society and PSL Tampa Bay all spoke about suffering that TPD has caused.

They talked about TPD officers joking after shooting a dog, called TPD an "occupying force" for the poor, homeless and Black people in Tampa, and referenced "biking while Black", which, like crime free multi-housing, also came under federal investigation.

Earlier this month, TPD finally settled with a family whose father died in TPD's custody while having a diabetic emergency, after an eight year legal battle with the city. TPD and Mayor Jane Castor refused to apologize to the family.

Chief Assistant City Attorney Ursula Richardson also spoke to the CRB, advising the body of the potential legal difficulties of using subpoena power if the board were to have it, citing the inability of the board to subpoena officers and state laws that make subpoenas a process that must be navigated carefully. Shaw countered that several municipalities in Florida have review boards with subpoena power.

Of the seven Tampa City Councilmembers contacted by CL for comment, only Lynn Hurtak and Orlando Gudes spoke on the record.

"The CRB voted for subpoena power, and that's what we're hearing from citizens, that they also would like that," Hurtak told CL. "And considering that we cannot subpoena police officers and the fact that this subpoena power would be used in such few cases, I think putting it on the ballot is a perfectly reasonable thing to do and let the people decide."

Gudes, who was a Tampa police officer for nearly 30 years, said council needs to look at the recommendation with close consideration.

"I think that if the board recommends that, then we need to look at that highly," he said. "Because they are the ones doing the work."

Whether or not council will approve the recommendation is yet to be seen. The process of getting subpoena power for the CRB on the ballot, whether it be on a November ballot this year, or on the March ballot in 2023,  is another obstacle that will be discussed by council.

It will most likely come up at the meeting on Thursday, July 28, several council members said.

After the CRB's vote, Shaw weighed in on the decision.

"The people of Tampa overwhelmingly support voting on whether the CRB should be able to obtain additional evidence by subpoena when reviewing complaints against the police," Shaw said. "And the CRB made clear today that they also support letting the voters decide."

About The Author

Justin Garcia

Justin Garcia previously wrote for the USA Today Network, The Economic Hardship Reporting Project, Scalawag Magazine, and various other news outlets. When he's not writing, Justin likes to make music, read, play basketball and spend time with loved ones. 

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