Tampa’s police review board votes in support of allowing local residents to weigh in on subpoena power

crime scene tape
By Tony Webster (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Tampa’s citizen-led police review board voted 6–3 on Tuesday night to recommend that city council put subpoena power for the board on the ballot for voters to decide. This vote is the latest development in a years-long fight to strengthen the police review board, which some activists have described as a “sham.”

The Citizens Review Board in Tampa was first created in 2015 to enhance trust between the community and the Tampa Police Department, after a Tampa Bay Times investigation revealed that officers were disproportionately ticketing Black cyclists, in a scandal more commonly known as “Biking While Black.”

However, the board has been criticized by activists for lacking teeth — since it can only review closed cases of police misconduct, or internal police investigations, in addition to other matters of interest from the community.

From there, board members — appointed by City Council, the mayor, and the NAACP — can provide recommendations regarding the Tampa Police Department’s policy and procedures, and review whether officers are following them.

But, some say, that’s not enough. After the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in 2020, and TPD’s aggressive response to some who protested racial injustice on the streets shortly after, local advocates who helped push for the board’s creation called on the board and city leaders again to strengthen the police oversight mechanism for greater accountability and transparency.

By, for instance, giving the CRB access to an independent attorney, free of potential conflicts of interest, and the power to subpoena evidence – like records, and testimony – from private citizens. Under state law, civilian boards are barred from issuing subpoenas to police officers.

“Getting this board stronger so that they can actually help out folks in the community, so that you can actually, you know, make the real change that I know you all want to make is good,” said David Jones, a young activist who organizes with the Tampa Bay Community Action Committee.

In December, the board did gain access to a city attorney who doesn’t work for the police department. But that’s not the same as independent counsel. As for subpoena power, the city’s legal staff have said that giving the board subpoena power would require a change to the city’s charter – essentially, the city’s constitution.

“Just like the Florida State Constitution, the charter is our constitution, and the way to change that is either through a petition to the voters and signatures in order to make that happen. Or, it happens through the city council itself passing an ordinance and then getting it onto the ballot for the next election,” said Ursula Richardson, the city’s chief assistant attorney.

James Shaw, a local attorney who volunteers with the Greater Tampa Chapter of the ACLU, has disputed this. He, and other members of the local ACLU, sent a memo to city staff and Tampa City Council in August 2020, obtained by WMNF, explaining why council does have the ability to vest the CRB with subpoena power, as a legislative body.

A previous effort to get council to give the board subpoena power failed last year. That’s in no small part due to the city legal staff’s assertion that, under Florida law, city council does not have the authority to do this, and that the move would require a ballot referendum, leaving the decision up to voters to decide.

A poll commissioned by the ACLU last year showed that granting the board subpoena power is popular among Tampa residents. Out of about 590 Tampa voters surveyed, 74% said the board should be able to subpoena video recordings and witnesses. Eighty-two percent agreed that Tampa residents should be given the chance to vote on the issue.

But the proposal has received push-back from some. One member of the board, Irene Guy — a realtor by trade — argued it’s unnecessary for the board to have subpoena power. “When would be a time when we would ask for a subpoena? Because I can’t come up with one. If anybody else does, I would love to hear it.”

Guy emphasized that the board doesn’t investigate misconduct, only reviews closed cases — ironically, one of the major criticisms of the board expressed by activists — and criticized the ACLU-commissioned poll showing support for subpoena power, describing its language as “leading.”

The local police union, set to potentially snag a hefty raise for Tampa police officers, has also opposed common-sense reforms supported by advocates, including subpoena power.

The ACLU has said a stronger Citizens Review Board could go a long way toward fairness, independence, and transparency in Tampa’s police department, which is currently under federal investigation for a “Crime Free Housing” program for potential violation of the Fair Housing Act.

“Without the right tools, the Citizens Review Board doesn’t have the teeth to get to the bottom of what happened [with the CFHP],” Robin Lockett, regional director of Florida Rising, wrote in an op-ed for the Times.

Civilian boards in other parts of Florida — like Orange County and Miami–Dade — have gained subpoena power. A member of Miami’s civilian board even left a voicemail for Tampa board members, read during Tuesday’s meeting, that advocated for subpoena power and independent counsel.

In the end, the majority of the board’s members voted in favor of recommending that Tampa City Council give local voters the chance to weigh in.

A charter review workshop with Tampa City Council, where this issue could be addressed, will get its date set this Thursday, July 28, during council’s regular meeting.

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