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Tampa mayor heads off city council effort, creates police review board

The city council will get the police oversight board it has been pushing for, but the argument over who will serve on it may rumble on.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn on Friday signed an executive order creating an 11-member citizens review board to make recommendations on cases including use of undue force, police pursuits and other matters that lead to internal investigations. The board also will make recommendations on general police practices and community issues.

The move comes after city council members pushed forward with their plan for a citizens review board, a response to calls from community groups for more civilian oversight of the police department after accusations of racial profiling. The accusations arise, in part, from the department’s practice of issuing routine citations for minor bicycling offenses by blacks in East Tampa.

The move may pre-empt a recommendation from the U.S. Department of Justice, which is reviewing the police department’s bicycle citation policies.

Buckhorn had questioned whether the council had the authority to create the board but said Friday that civilian oversight would improve transparency and communication between the police and the community.

“We heard the voices at city council, and we respect those voices, but we are going to create a solution that works for us, not that works for some other outside group,” Buckhorn said.

The issue had threatened to become something of a turf war between Buckhorn and council members, who were pushing for better oversight of the police department. Among those joining the council in pushing for the creation of the board were the NAACP and the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Buckhorn said he spoke with several lawyers and cited an opinion by City Attorney Julia Mandell that he alone had the authority to create the review board.

“The charter is very, very, very clear on who has the authority to do that,” Buckhorn said. “That authority as vested in the charter resides in the office of the mayor.”

The board will be composed of volunteers who live in Tampa or own businesses in the city. Buckhorn will appoint seven of the board members and two alternates, leaving council members two appointees.

Council Chairman Frank Reddick said that gives Buckhorn too much say and could lead to a board that is accountable only to the mayor. Reddick plans to ask fellow council members at their meeting Thursday to approve the hiring of an outside lawyer to give an opinion on whether creating the civilian board falls within Buckhorn’s purview.

“If the mayor appoints them, they will be beholden to the mayor instead of being beholden to the citizens of this community,” Reddick said. “Citizens from the community requested that they wanted an independent board with accountability.”

Councilman Mike Suarez’s concern was that business owners who live outside the city would be eligible to serve on the board, but he said he welcomed Buckhorn’s decision.

“I’m glad that he has been watching council and knowing that this is an issue we thought important,” Suarez said. “We weren’t looking at trying to tell the mayor what to do, but we were hearing from people in the community and believe it’s the right thing to do.”

Buckhorn said the city soon will put applications to serve on the board on the city website.

He said he has not decided who he might appoint but already has strong feelings on who shouldn’t be on it.

“Certainly, from my perspective, I am not going to appoint people who have an agenda, people who are aspiring for political office, people who hate the police,” he said. “This is not going to work if that is the type of people we have.”

Police Chief Eric Ward said he evaluated the review boards operating in several other Florida cities, including Orlando, Fort Myers and St. Petersburg. He said the St. Petersburg model looked right for Tampa.

“It’s been very effective,” Ward said. “It promotes transparency with the agency and also with the community.”

Buckhorn hopes to have the board appointments filled by Dec. 1. The cost of the board is expected to be minimal since members will serve as volunteers.

Requirements of the applicants include a minimum age of 18, a background check and no felony convictions or convictions involving moral turpitude. City employees or people who work for any law enforcement agency are ineligible.

Those selected to serve on the board must agree to serve a four-year term and will be required to complete the police department’s Citizens Academy, a one-night-a-week training course over nine weeks that gives an overview of police practices.

They must also spend nine hours doing ride-alongs with officers.

The power of the review board largely will be in making recommendations to the department’s police chief.

It will not have subpoena power. In cases where the conduct of an officer is under investigation, it will have to wait until the conclusion of any internal affairs investigation before it can review records, video footage or other evidence that is exempted from public records law while an investigation is pending.

“We have a very intensive internal affairs process in place,” Ward said. “The board members will realize once we start doing these cases the great detail we go to to come to a rational conclusion to the investigation.”

 

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