Mayor Castor’s Tweaks To Tampa’s Police Review Board Disappoint Activists

TAMPA — After nearly a year of sometimes intense conflict over the proposed independence of the city’s police oversight board, City Council members Thursday weighed in with a crucial changes to Mayor Jane Castor’s proposal.

And then came a legal twist that surprised many council members: any changes they make have to get Castor’s approval, City Attorney Gina Grimes said.

Council members had just voted to give themselves a majority of appointments — seven — to the 11-person Citizen Review Board.

The mayor, who currently has a majority of appointments, would have four choices, including a member of the NAACP. Luis Viera was the only council member to vote against the change.

Right after the vote, Grimes told them a recent change to the City Charter means any changes are still subject to the approval of the mayor.

That prompted a passionate response from council member Orlando Gudes.

“We have to have separation of powers,” Gudes said. “That’s going to have to be changed.”

The dispute over who holds the power over the volunteer board has animated debate in the city since the board was created in 2015 after a Tampa Bay Times report revealed Tampa police had disproportionately ticketed black bicyclists.

At that time, former mayor Bob Buckhorn had clashed with then-chairman Frank Reddick and others about who would control its make up.

Council members said they were confident something they could reach an agreement with Castor before the proposed overhaul of the board comes back before them on May 20.

Council members also unanimously directed city attorneys to begin work on a 2022 charter amendment to give voters the power to change the Charter to allow the board to hire an independent lawyer.

They also voted unanimously to allow someone arrested for a misdemeanor to be appointed to the board or continue to serve if they would to take a leave of absence until the matter is resolved.

But they decided to wait to ask the voter’s opinion on giving limited subpoena powers to the board, another change advocated by the ACLU and activists.

Council member John Dingfelder, who proposed the charter amendments and misdemeanor fix, made clear he wasn’t looking to subpoena police officers, who are exempt under a state law and subsequent 2017 state Supreme Court ruling.

He later withdrew his motion on subpoena power when it became clear he didn’t have the votes, but said voters should have the final say.

“It’s all about the search for the truth. We have to let the voters decide,” Dingfelder said.

The issue of stronger police oversight has been on the front burner in the city since street protests broke out after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody in May.

The ACLU and a coalition of activists have argued that the oversight board needs independent lawyers, investigators and the ability to subpoena non-police witnesses and evidence. One example offered by volunteer attorneys for the ACLU on Thursday was video from a home surveillance system.

Police union officials contested those changes, saying law enforcement already faces multiple levels of local, state and federal scrutiny. Viera pointed out the Castor has recently equipped police with body cameras and formalized bans on choke holds and no-knock warrants. Last year, the mayor also said the Florida Department of Law Enforcement would investigate all incidents where police shot civilians.

The council debate took place after about two hours of public testimony by more than three dozen people — with a majority in favor of reforming the panel.

Yvette Lewis, president of the Hillsborough chapter of the NAACP, said change was needed to correct historic discrimination and poor treatment of Black people at the hands of police.

“We African Americans did not start this fight with (the Tampa Police Department.) The injustice started within their house.”

Jeff Hawks of the Community Patriots, who said he represented thousands of residents, called out council members Citro and Dingfelder by name, saying they needed to remember sometimes tense and violent protests in South Tampa and support the police.

“It’s time you represented all of the citizens,” Hawks said.

Angel D’Angelo, who has been active in protests against police misconduct, said the ACLU’s reforms “barely scratches the surface of what we need.”

Those who didn’t agree were “guardians of oppression,” D’Angelo said.

In the end, council member said the discussions had gone on long enough. Decisions needed to be made.

“It’s going to bring out a heck of a lot more transparency within our city,” Citro said.

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Coverage of local and national protests from the Tampa Bay Times

HOW TO SUPPORT: Whether you’re protesting or staying inside, here are ways to educate yourself and support black-owned businesses.

WHAT PROTESTERS WANT: Protesters explain what changes would make them feel like the movement is successful.

WHAT ARE NON-LETHAL AND LESS-LETHAL WEAPONS? A guide to what’s used in local and national protests.

WHAT ARE ARRESTED PROTESTERS CHARGED WITH? About half the charges filed have included unlawful assembly.

CAN YOU BE FIRED FOR PROTESTING? In Florida, you can. Learn more.

HEADING TO A PROTEST? How to protect eyes from teargas, pepper spray and rubber bullets.

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