Opinion: Changes to Tampa police review board could help shore up race relations, trust in police

Like so many of us, watching George Floyd die at the hands of police in Minneapolis horrified me. 

Not sure what to do with my anger and grief, I joined some local protest marches. And I’ve been floored by how many people here and all around the world have shaken off their fear of coronavirus and done the same. 

One thing is clear: It’s time for change. Change in race relations in general and a change in policing in particular. These calls have come before but this time feels different. 

“Enough is enough,” is a chant I’m hearing in the streets. 

But what kind of change do we need and how do we do it? 

A shift in the hearts of individuals and equality in workplaces, housing, education, transportation, and other institutions is long hard work that needs to be done.

Other avenues are ripe for relatively rapid wins. 

Tampa’s Citizen Review Board is one example. 

While cities in other parts of the country are just now creating these boards to hold police departments accountable, Tampa’s was created in 2015 after the Tampa Bay Times revealed that officers disproportionately issued citations to black bicyclists. 

Tampa’s board, however, has limited power and limited visibility. It’s difficult to even find the names of its members online. Under the ordinance that created it, the board’s scope is confined to simply reviewing closed police internal affairs investigations to make sure they followed proper procedures and reviewing and making recommendations on police department policies. 

Activists (including Tampa For Justice, which worked on the original proposal) and community leaders are calling for everything from an overhaul of the board to a few tweaks. A few ideas I’ve heard that I think are worth considering: 
  • Allow the CRB to receive complaints directly from the public and vote on whether to investigate each complaint. 
  • Allow the board to play an advisory role in police department policy changes and hiring. 
  • Give the board investigatory powers as allowed by state law. 
  • Notify the board whenever an officer’s firearm is discharged and vote on whether to investigate each report. 
  • Issue recommendations at the conclusion of each investigation and require the police chief and/or Mayor to respond to each recommendation
  • Notify the board when a complaint is filed with the police department. 
  • Require the CRB coordinator to notify complainants when their cases are heard by the board. 
  • Change the make-up of the board so the City Council has more appointments than the Mayor, who oversees the police department. 
  • Post the board member names and terms, meeting minutes, and annual report on the CRB web page. 
  • Require the CRB coordinator to present twice-yearly reports at City Council meetings that include data on police complaints. 
With collective energy around the world directed toward a more equitable society and better policing, now is the time to take action. The task at hand can seem overwhelming. But there are steps we can take. Strengthening our Citizens Review Board to give people a voice and hold the police department accountable is one of them. 

The Citizen Review Board is scheduled to meet June 23 at 6 p.m. at the Tampa Convention Center. The agenda includes a public comment period and presentation of an annual report. 

Janet Scherberger, a former Tampa Bay Times reporter who covered Tampa City Hall, recently retired as a PR executive.