TAMPA — Created amid tension between residents and police, including an uproar over the disproportionate ticketing of black bicyclists in 2015, the city’s Citizen Review Board was supposed to build trust and transparency.
Nearly two years after the 11-member board began meeting, the verdict is mixed.
Police say the board has performed a valuable function, publicly reviewing Internal Affairs cases and holding public forums on hot-button topics like immigration and police use of body cameras.
Critics say the panel functions as a rubber stamp that doesn’t have enough independence, undercutting public trust.
Through January, the board reviewed 16 closed cases and agreed with the police department’s decision on every one.
That record speaks to good police work, said Tampa Police Department spokesman Steve Hegarty.
Consider a July 2017 case where police shot and killed Sunny Chin after Chin fired at officers and struck an officer’s protective shield, Hegarty said.
“Ultimately, you just have to look at it and say if a guy came out and shot at officers, I don’t know what else you can say about it,” he said.
The Rev. Russell Meyer, co-chair of Tampa for Justice, which spearheaded an unsuccessful drive in 2016 to give the panel more independence, has a different take.
“People across the community, they’re just not willing to engage because they don’t even think they’ll get a fair hearing. All the Citizen Review Board does is check the math of the police department’s own homework,” Meyer said.
Residents should have a venue to file complaints before a board without police supervision, Meyer said. The board’s close relationship with the police makes it “structurally unsound,” Meyer said.
Mayor Bob Buckhorn says the board has performed “as well as we had hoped.”
“The members are credible, seasoned and they’re respected,” he said. “And they’re not sitting as judge, jury and executioners on the police department.”
Currently, the board’s vice-chair Irene Guy selects cases for review from a list provided by the police department.
Guy noted the board has also taken up questions posed by residents. One example being how the city selects a new police chief, she said.
Board members are eager to hear from the public, Guy said. In her view, the board is more of a liaison with the public.
“We’re interested more in what citizens are thinking,” Guy said.
Chairman Rasheed Ali Aquil said he thinks the board has done its job.
“This is just another outlet for the citizens to get some feedback,” he said.
The board, though, will continue to evolve, Aquil said. One change may be a more active role in recommending changes to police policy, he said.
“I challenged the board to recognize that policies need to be updated. That is something that I recognize as well,” Aquil said.
City Council member Frank Reddick was critical of the board’s structure when it was formed in November 2015. His opinion hasn’t changed: The board’s structure has undermined its effectiveness as an oversight agency, he said.
Reddick said he isn’t surprised that the board has found no wrongdoing by police.
“They receive the report after the chief has signed off on it. What can be done?” Reddick said.
Tampa NAACP chapter president Yvette Lewis echoed Reddick’s stance.
“They haven’t done anything,” she said.
Aquil doesn’t agree with that assessment, pointing to the public forums and outreach efforts.
“We’re not all the way there yet. But I’m very optimistic,” he said.
Giving the public a chance to examine a police shooting or other high-profile actions is valuable in itself, Hegarty said. Often, the media stories that appear in the hours or days after an incident don’t have all the facts or context because the investigation is still ongoing, he said.
“They get into a level of detail that isn’t available the day after the shooting,” Hegarty said of the board’s review.
And putting more investigative teeth into the board is problematic, he said. A Florida Supreme Court decision in June overturned Miami’s Civilian Investigative Panel’s ability to issue subpoenas. In a unanimous ruling, the justices said oversight boards can’t compel police officers to appear before their board while under investigation because it violates a state law protecting officers’ rights.
Everyone agrees that more public participation and engagement with the police would be useful. The board has partnered with New York University School of Law’s Policing Project to survey residents about policing practices. Recently, the board has extended the survey’s deadline until March to allow more time to gather responses.
At January’s meeting, which was largely organizational, no one from the public appeared. The largest crowd probably attended the board’s April meeting, which included a presentation on police policies’ regarding immigrants. Maybe 20 people showed up.
“It’s usually fairly sparse,” Hegarty said.