On Friday Juneteenth, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor spoke at a hastily thrown together press conference determined to make a substantial announcement that would placate protesters who have steadily taken to the city's streets over the last several weeks. Those activists are demanding accountability from law enforcement and concrete policy changes to address decades of distrust between Tampa’s Black community and police.
The day before, reps from six local law enforcement agencies—including Tampa Police Department and the Hillsborough County Sheriff—met with reps from the Hillsborough NAACP and local ACLU branches to discuss many changes to policing policies that were eventually announced on June 24 (at her Juneteenth presser, Castor told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay she was not aware of the meeting).
Castor said going forward all investigations involving officer-involved shootings will be led by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, rather than internally. She also announced the creation of an official duty-to-intervene policy if an officer witnesses another officer using excessive force and added that, “I’ve created the Mayor’s Community Task Force on Policing to ensure we have direct feedback from our residents.”
On the night before the Juneteenth presser, various city staffers sent a flurry of emails inviting a select group of approximately 40 people to be part of the task force. Yvette Lewis, President of Hillsborough’s NAACP branch told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay that she received a direct phone call from Castor.
“I told her I would attend but it can’t be another dog and pony show like Buckhorn’s Citizen Review Board,” Lewis said.
Lewis was referring to Tampa’s Citizen Review Board of the Police Department (CRB), which Mayor Buckhorn formed by executive order in 2015 after a protracted fight with the Tampa City Council over its creation and control. Buckhorn wanted power over the Board and to limit its ability to influence police policy—and he got his way. Today’s CRB has no authority, an agenda set by the police department and no ability to investigate complaints from the public. It has been widely criticized as being ineffective.
After George Floyd protests rocked the city, calls to revamp the CRB grew louder prompting Tampa City Council to consider recreating it to allow for more community oversight and investigatory powers. The Council will hold a workshop on restructuring the CRB on July 16.
On Saturday, June 20, at the first meeting of Mayor Castor’s Community Task Force on Policing, Castor—accompanied by Ashley Bauman, City of Tampa Director of Marketing and spokesperson for the mayor—attempted to eject this reporter from the River Center at Julian B. Lane Park.
“You weren't invited. Don’t make us kick you out of here,” Castor said.
She was right, CL's reporter wasn’t invited. The mayor and her staff hand-selected which community members could attend her discussion on policing, and they didn’t pick anyone from our paper (or any other outlets as far as we can tell).
On Tuesday, Bauman told CL that our reporter was asked to leave on Saturday and added that he seemed to want to be forcibly removed.
“But we’re not in the business of doing that so we let him stay,” Bauman told CL.
[Editor's Note: CL's reporter, Kelly Benjamin, responded to Bauman's claim by saying that the "notion that I wanted to be 'forcibly removed' is absurd."
"The mayor announced that the process would be transparent, it's clearly not. She said it would be livestreamed and would allow comment from the public then changed her mind with no explanation or announcement. I attended to get the real story on the task force," Benjamin added. "Several attendees came up to me during the recess and thanked me for being there."]
Bauman said that the group would continue to meet with the selected members and that CL’s reporter is not invited to the next meeting on July 18 as it’s off the record.
But at her Juneteenth presser, Castor said that “community members will have the opportunity to participate by sending in questions and concerns during the public comment portion of the meeting on Facebook Live.” There was no public comment at Saturday's meeting nor a Facebook Live. So our reporter stuck around.
Bauman said that decision to make a livestream available changed when some task force invitees felt uncomfortable with the idea. However, during the meeting, the task force’s paid moderator, Tru Pettigrew, said that he didn’t see a problem with CL’s reporter attending the off the record meeting. Bauman told CL that Pettigrew himself told our reporter that the decision wasn't Pettigrew's to make (we've asked for Pettigrew's phone number to confirm).
Bauman added that members of the task force group were selected by City of Tampa staff from a cross section of community organizers, leaders and activists. The city would not share a list of the members, but Bauman said that the members could self-identify. She added that the meetings are meant to be off the record so that participants can be open about their emotions. According to the city, findings being collected by USF will be made available to the public after the task force meetings wrap.
Despite the Mayor’s protest, our reporter joined the room full of assorted, masked-up community leaders, organizers, students, and clergy sitting disturbingly less than six-feet apart around assigned tables, each one furnished with a casually dressed cop prepared for a tough conversation. After a short speech from the mayor in which she vowed transparency in tackling issues with the police department (while simultaneously lamenting my presence to the crowd), she left, presumably to join WWE stars Dave Bautista and Titus O’Neil for something called a “Love Walk” downtown. (local ABC affiliate WFTS reported that O’Neil opened the “Love Walk” by stating that “we can’t break down systemic issues that have been plaguing this country for years by sitting and having conversations. We have to take action.” It’s unclear if his statement was vetted by the mayor’s office).
After a brief powerpoint presentation by Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan running through Tampa’s demographics (low number of black officers relative to population) and police budget ($167 million, 90% of which is personnel costs) the Task Force moderator took over. Tru Pettigrew, a professional speaker and stylish workshop leader was flown in from North Carolina to guide the discussion.
“Share your experiences at your tables” regarding racism and discrimination in law enforcement, he advised. “Don’t be dismissive.”
The cop at our reporter's table was Corporal Jared Douds, a 26-year TPD veteran who leads the department’s training unit. Douds listened intently as each of the Black task force volunteers at the table described in great detail their experiences with racism within local law enforcement and instances of “biking while Black” and “driving while Black” and “existing while Black.” When asked if he agreed with their conclusion that structural racism influences policies and procedures within the department, Douds said “No, but I can understand why you could see it that way.”
According to at least four other attendees, a similar situation played out at several tables in the room: Folks from the community would express frustration regarding incidents of discrimination or brutality with the police, and the cop at the table would deny that a systemic problem exists. Douds did suggest that perhaps members of the public should ride along with officers during training and critique interactions with the public in order to offer another layer of accountability. That idea generally received a favorable response.
“Overall, it was frustrating,” D'Mario “KD” Edgecombe, a 22-year-old activist and University of South Florida (USF) student with the newly formed Black Collective Movement, told CL when contacted by phone after the meeting. “I don't think it was really a productive meeting.”
Edgecombe is among a new crop of local activists leading numerous protests through the streets of Tampa. His group is calling for the defunding and eventual abolishment of the police department (actions that aren't as "radical" as most opponents would have you believe). BCM has also led the call for Mayor Castor to fire Chief Dugan over his handling of recent protests where officers used chemical weapons and projectiles on largely peaceful protesters in downtown Tampa.
Last Thursday, spokesperson Bauman told CL in a text message that, "Dugan is the chief at TPD and there have been no discussions about a change at the top."
Dugan expressed regret over the incident but maintains that his back is against the wall.
“If we show up and take action, we’re [accused of being] heavy handed,” Dugan told “Fox & Friends” on June 25. “...but I assure you, we are not going to take a knee, we are going to stand up and defend our city. We are the guardians of the city.”
During the Task Force recess, Edgecomb along with a few other young activists cornered Dugan near several boxes of Dunkin Donuts to vent their grievances.
“I appreciated that he was open to listening,” Edgecombe told CL. During our conversation, he partially walked back his demand to fire Dugan and said he was open to placing him on probation until he addresses multiple issues within the police department. “Ultimately, we’re still calling for the abolishment of the police. But that’s a long term goal.”
The city also invited USF criminology professor Dr. Bryanna Fox to oversee collecting recommendations from the Mayor’s Task Force. Fox brought in a group of her graduate students equipped with voice recorders to fan out to each table documenting conversations and policy recommendations. When the Task Force concludes, Fox says her group will “provide feedback on the perceptions of law enforcement and recommend evidence-based/scientifically-validated programs and policies to consider to address prominent issues.”
There is a fair degree of pessimism among participants who fear the task force could be just one more committee set up as a release valve to talk about problems within the police ad nauseam. Those participants worry that the task force will not definitively address issues about unfair policing with concrete policy.
Four paths to fix the Tampa Police
• Mayor’s Community Task Force on Policing will meet throughout the summer to brainstorm ideas to address policy.
• Citizen Review Board 2.0: The Tampa City Council is currently reviewing an ordinance to restructure the failed CRB to give it more independence from the Mayor and investigatory power. A workshop is scheduled on the ordinance for July 16.
• Defunding the Police: The Mayor will announce her proposed City Budget to the City Council in August. Advocates for defunding, demilitarizing, and reallocating funds to the Black community intend to be a part of the conversation. Several cities nationwide have implemented some sort of defunding initiative.
• The NAACP, ACLU, and all six law enforcement agencies in Hillsborough County are holding monthly meetings to hammer our policy changes that would be uniformly implemented by each agency. So far, the group has met once with law enforcement appearing to make a good faith effort to address concerns.
Still, there was general consensus that the dialogue is healthy.
“They need to hear us, they need to listen to us as people.” Edgecombe said. “And the mayor, as a former police chief, needs to stay in the room and have the conversation with us.”
The Black Collective Movement did have one other opportunity to meet with the Mayor at her office downtown just as the protests began to engulf the city.
“She showed up in a tracksuit with her dog.” he said. “It was very casual. Discussing police violence and racism in our community shouldn’t be that casual. There’s nothing casual about Black people dying.”
The next Community Task Force on Policing meeting will be held on July 18. CL intends to be there, and we're hoping the city lets us in.
UPDATED: 07/01/20 11:35 a.m. Updated again with comments from City of Tampa spokesperson Ashley Bauman and a response from CL's reporter Kelly Benjamin. Headline updated to better reflect how some of the task force participants felt.
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