TAMPA — The Department of Justice will be reviewing all of the police department’s traffic citations and policies to determine whether officers have been unfairly targeting black bicyclists.
Mayor Bob Buckhorn and Police Chief Jane Castor announced the review Wednesday, saying they invited the federal agency to investigate after data showed the vast majority of bike citations over the past decade were given to blacks.
“Each day, the Tampa Police Department works to ensure that our families and our children are kept safe from gun violence, drug-activity, and other types of crime that threaten their well-being, as well as holding the individuals who commit the crimes accountable,” Buckhorn said in written statement. “Equally as important is that we do so in a manner that is reflective of the values and mission that we instill in our officers. Racial profiling is not just illegal, it is unjust and immoral. It is not — and has never been – tolerated in the Tampa Police Department or any city department or division.”
In addition to the Department of Justice investigation, Castor said, the department also will now monitor and review every traffic stop, ticket, citation and warning issued to bicyclists, motorists and pedestrians.
All officers also will be reminded about the proper policy for stopping bicyclists and issuing bike citations, she said, and a representative from the department will hold a monthly meeting with the NAACP to allow citizens to discuss directly any concerns they have about unfair treatment, Castor said.
The issue was thrust into the spotlight after a front-page article about the high percentage of citations given to black bicyclists ran in the Tampa Bay Times on Sunday.
Tampa police issued about 101,000 traffic citations last year for vehicle, bicycle and pedestrian violations, Castor said during an afternoon press conference. About 29 percent of those tickets were given to African Americans.
When it came to bike violations, though, blacks made up the vast majority of those cited, often for riding at night without proper lights.
The department issued 544 bike citations in 2014, records show. Of those, 443 — or about 81 percent — were given to black bicyclists. African Americans make up slightly more than a quarter of the city’s population, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.
Court records show that the percentage of bike citations given to blacks has been largely consistent over the past decade, with blacks being cited disproportionately more than their population.
Castor called the numbers “troubling’’ and said those inconsistencies were the reason she and other city officials asked for the review from the DOJ.
“This has become a very serious issue to us and we understand the sensitivity of the community,” Castor said.
Castor said she has been discussing the issue with civic leaders across the city, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the League of United Latin American Citizens and the American Civil Liberties Union.
The chief said she does not think her department has been guilty of racial profiling, though she said the federal investigation is appropriate to make sure she is not missing “the forest for the trees.’’
There are good reasons why officers have issued more citations to black bicyclists, she said.
The department is very “proactive” and “strategic” in where it deploys officers, Castor said. There are inevitably more patrols in high-crime areas like Sulphur Springs and Robles Park, both of which are primarily black neighborhoods, than in other areas, she said.
“So, naturally, they’ll find more bike violations than officers spread out in other areas,” Castor said.
Police do not consider bicycle crimes or safety violations as minor issues, the chief said, noting bike thefts make up 15 percent of property crimes in Tampa and that Florida leads the nation in bicycle and pedestrian deaths.
In the last decade, the citations and other community-policing tactics have helped Tampa police dramatically reduce crime rates, recover stolen property and get criminals off the streets, Castor said.
Most of the citations, records show, are issued for violations like riding on the wrong side of the road or without lights and reflectors in the dark.
“Every single bike stop that they do is based on the law,” Castor said about her officers.
City Councilman Frank Reddick said he has received calls and emails this week from people who are unhappy about the large number of citations given to black cyclists. The sentiment, he said, has been unanimous among everyone he’s talked to that police are unfairly targeting blacks.
“People are very upset,” Reddick said.
He said he was bothered most by the fact many of the people being given the citations are from low-income families and use their bikes as their only means of transportation. Once they are given a ticket, many can’t pay the fee, he said.
And if people are being targeted for not having a light on the bicycle, “a lot don’t even know that’s against the law,” Reddick said. Police should concentrate more on giving out warnings and educational material rather than issuing citations, he said.
“That has not been done,” he said. “I think this could have been handled differently.”
Reddick said Castor and Buckhorn did the right thing by asking the Department of Justice to get involved.
“We’ll see if civil rights have been violated,” he said.
Castor said she personally has never received a complaint from a citizen saying they were unfairly treated by police, though she said she has recently found out the local NAACP and ACLU field such complaints regularly.
Joyce Hamilton Henry, the director of advocacy for the ACLU of Florida, said the group was shocked by the percentage of citations given to black bicyclists.
There have been similar problems in Ft. Lauderdale and the Miami Gardens area that resulted in lawsuits and civil rights investigations, and the only way to appease a concerned public was for those agencies to show they were listening to residents’ concerns, Henry said.
She said the department should suspend its “policy and practice” of ticketing bicyclists until the external review is completed.
“They have to make a judgment about risks to public safety, and we’ll leave it up to them, but they should suspend that,” Henry said.
Lydia Medrano, state director of LULAC, said she thinks Castor is “concerned and giving attention to it, and I like that.”
“We want to prevent a Ferguson situation here in Tampa,” Medrano said, referring to the nationwide protests after a white officer in Ferguson, Missouri, shot an unarmed black man last summer.
Medrano said when she and representatives from other organizations met with Castor on Tuesday, they talked about ways to enlarge the conversation to include the people who are being arrested and not just those who attend town hall meetings.
“I think we need to go deeper into the community,” she said.
Hillsborough NAACP president Bennie Small welcomed the Justice Department inquiry.
“If there are any flaws in the system, that will be brought out by the investigation,” he said.
There also should be an examination of whether police have been inappropriately targeting blacks beyond just bicycle citations, and police need to undergo more racial sensitivity training, he said. He also called for more communication with residents so police can better understand neighborhood concerns and residents can better understand police.
Small said the police has had “some very good community relations” with minority residents, but “I think more is needed.”
NAACP representatives were at the meeting Tuesday with Castor, and she was “very receptive, and I think that’s a positive step,” said Small, who was not at the meeting. “Hopefully, something positive can be derived from that.”
At Wednesday’s press conference, Castor said the police can only do their job when they hold the trust of the community.
Every officer in Tampa is expected to be a “community officer” with knowledge of the communities and the people who live there, she said. A renewed commitment to those ideals should help regain that trust, she said.
“It goes back to the way people are treated,” Castor said. “We want our officers to abide by the golden rule and treat every individual with respect.”
Staff Writer Elaine Silvestrini contributed to this report.