Fla. police review board will try to walk thin line between critics and officers

The board will be made up of 11 volunteer civilians appointed by the mayor and city council

By Christopher O'Donnell
Tampa Tribune

TAMPA, Fla. — With Mayor Bob Buckhorn and the city council at odds over who appoints a new police oversight board, missing from the debate has been discussion of whether it can accomplish its goal of making police more accountable to the public.

The board Buckhorn plans to have running by December will be made up of 11 volunteer civilians appointed by the mayor and city council and will have no police personnel — a concern for police unions. It also will lack subpoena power, which gives it no teeth in the view of police critics.

The risk for the city is that the new board will fail to satisfy police critics and yet antagonize police officers who feel civilians lack the expertise to understand policing, said Tod Burke, a professor of criminal justice at Radford University and a former Maryland police officer.

“That’s the police officer in me,” Burke said. “If you want to show trust between the police and the public you need to have the police and the public working together not separately.”

More than 120 communities nationwide have some form of civilian review board, according to the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement. That includes nine agencies in Florida.

Most communities have created boards voluntarily. Others, like Ferguson, where the fatal shooting of a unarmed black teenager by a white police officer led to riots, were mandated by the Justice Department.

Civilian oversight is also one of the recommendations of President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.

But the report acknowledges there is little proof that review boards succeed in checking police wrongdoing or improving relations between police and the community. It calls on the National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the Justice Department, to conduct more studies.

Pushing for more civilian oversight of the police in Tampa are civic groups including the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union.

It comes in the wake of accusations of racial profiling, in part because the police department disproportionately cited African Americans riding bicycles in East Tampa for minor offenses like having no lights. A U.S. Department of Justice probe into the practice is underway.

Tampa’s proposed review board is modeled on one in St. Petersburg, established after a recommendation from the Justice Department after riots reflecting tension between the city’s black community and its police department in the 1990s.

The board includes no police personnel and is structured to provide an independent audit or review of police internal affairs investigations.

In recent years, however, more communities have opted for a hybrid review board that allows for more input into internal investigations, according to a 2013 study by California State University’s Center for Public Policy.

These include Long Beach, California, where the Citizen Police Complaint Commission works with the police department’s internal affairs office to conduct investigations.

Those appointed to serve on Tampa’s proposed all-civilian 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 provides an overview of police practices.

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

Still, experienced police officers are unlikely to value or appreciate job advice from civilians who they feel do not understand the demands and pressures officers face on a daily basis, Burke said.

“They will think how dare a citizen tell me how I should be doing my job when they’ve never been a police officer,” he said. “They don’t know what it’s like on the street.”

As in St. Petersburg, Tampa’s proposed board would review cases after an internal affairs review was concluded and make recommendations to the police chief.

For example, the board could conclude that the discipline meted out to an officer who used excessive force to subdue a citizen was insufficient.

But that means the board will be relying on the internal affairs report, a process derided by police critics because officers are investigated by other officers. The chief is under no obligation to follow the review board’s recommendation.

“A body that can only review the conclusions of the department’s internal investigation is not an independent oversight body,” said Joyce Hamilton Henry, director of advocacy with the ACLU of Florida. “It’s dangerously close to a rubber stamp.”

To counter that, Tampa for Justice, a coalition of civic groups including the ACLU and the NAACP, are calling for the review board to have independent investigators and subpoena power.

That’s the model that the city of Miami adopted in 2002 in response to a spate of fatal shootings of black men and the indictment of 13 officers who were accused of planting guns on suspects.

Miami’s Civilian Investigative Panel of 13 volunteers is backed by a full-time staff of an executive director, two investigators, a lawyer and a secretary.

Independent investigations have made the police department there more thorough in its internal investigations, said Civilian Investigative Panel Director Cristina Beamud.

But the panel often failed to meet a 120-day deadline to conclude its own investigations and has been dogged by internal fighting and accusations of racism, a 2014 Miami Herald investigation found.

The panel costs the city more than $700,000 per year.

Tampa, by contrast, is planning to do its review board on the cheap. Officials have yet to establish a cost of the program but the all-volunteer model proposed by Buckhorn would likely amount to about $30,000 to cover the time of an administrator and the cost of televising meetings.

Still, Beamud said, even an audit board like Tampa’s adds transparency and brings cases to the public’s attention.

“The value is that it gives the public the opportunity to be heard,” Beamud said. “It gives the chief of police another perspective from which to consider what to do.”

Any move to make Tampa’s review board more like Miami’s would likely meet a legal challenge, said Vincent Gericitano, president of the Tampa Police Benevolent Association.

He said officers are protected by Florida’s Officer’s Bill of Rights and added that he does not see a need for any kind of review board.

“They will get hit with one hell of a lawsuit,” Gericitano said. “I think we do a great job policing ourselves.”

Copyright 2015 the Tampa Tribune 

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