Commentary: Making the case for enhancing public safety

The forthcoming 2021 City of Tampa budget presents a historic opportunity for Tampa to invest in public safety in a manner that protects citizen welfare for generations.
Unique circumstances, a city that supports public safety, and once-in-a-lifetime funding make this possible.
A year and a half ago, I proposed a Public Safety Master Plan for our City. My idea was to have a city-wide perspective on public safety deficits with a unified funding plan on how to address those deficits.
What led me to this were reactive responses to acute public safety challenges. In 2019, we learned of East Tampa fire safety challenges and reacted by funding a new emergency vehicle. Thereafter, we funded another emergency vehicle for North Tampa based on information gathered -- more reactive measures to acute situations.  Both of these steps were done thanks to collaborative leadership from Mayor Castor and City Council.  
My thought was: instead of taking reactive steps in responding to acute crises, why not do an annual study, supported by analytical data, that shows all public safety deficits with a long-term plan that is presented to elected officials?
Our public safety challenges are significant. 
Tampa is growing: In the last decade, we have grown by 20%. In 2020, Tampa ranked ninth among applicable cities for large-city growth. Each year, Tampa gets 1.1 million 911 calls.
And this growth has resulted in major challenges. Take Fire Station 13 in North Tampa, which serves the Busch and Fowler communities. Station 13 is not only the busiest station in Tampa, it is, according to the 2019 National Run Survey from Firehouse Magazine, the 13th busiest engine and 54th busiest ladder in the United States. Just recently, I did a 13 hour ride along -- from noon to 1 a.m. -- at Fire Station 13 to highlight how this station gets an average of about 25-30 calls a day. The men and women who work here are amazing public servants. They and their families deserve better. 
For Tampa Fire, the challenges continue. New Tampa has exploded with growth -- and 4 out of the 6 fire stations with the longest call response times are the 4 stations that service New Tampa. Channelside -- subject to explosive growth -- lacks a dedicated fire station. East Tampa stations continue to be burdened. South Tampa continues to grow in key areas. And West Tampa has a workforce housing boom -- with forthcoming fire safety challenges. Tampa Fire's challenges grow by the day.
Tampa Police Department has been a focus of scrutiny over the last year. I believe Tampa supports a police department that is responsive to public safety challenges, while pushing for community policing and other reforms. 
But reforms that gain trust in marginalized communities and produce smarter policing cost money. Consider the following needed but costly Tampa reforms:
  • Tampa wisely passed body cameras for police officers -- at a high cost; 
  • We passed implicit bias training for all employees, including police officers. The time that such training takes -- for instruction and time not in the field -- is significant;
  • 1 in 6 of our Tampa Police officers live in city limits. Addressing this through monetary incentives costs money;
  • We support having a mental health counselor accompany a police officer on calls for mental health. Imagine what this necessary goal properly implemented will cost the City budget;
  • Dealing proactively with Officer PTSD -- a major issue for officers who run into situations that most of us run away from -- costs money;
  • Community policing -- which shows that officers work best when they are out of their cars, walking the streets and engaging communities -- is another needed but costly reform.

That is why, since day one, I have rejected “defunding the police.” Such a measure is not in my political DNA.  And, frankly, measures that pay Officers less with fewer benefits for their families are inconsistent with my values.
Tampa residents honor the work that law enforcement officers do, and the sacrifices their families make. Tampa wants community policing and other measures that produce smarter policing and improve trust in marginalized communities. These sentiments do not conflict with one another, but compliment one another. And like President Biden has wisely said, necessary police reforms will require more, not less, monetary investments.
On public safety, we have collaborative leadership through Mayor Jane Castor. This collaborative Administration has supported public safety and will continue to be a partner on this issue.  
This year’s City of Tampa budget is a historical opportunity to address these challenges. And we have the funds to do it. Over the next two years, we will be receiving about $80 million from the federal American Relief Act. Though there are restrictions on these funds, the Biden Administration has encouraged local governments to use these funds, in part, to support public safety.
And that is just what Tampa should do, in relevant part. We have many needs that require the use of a portion of this money -- from affordable housing (a constant Tampa crisis) to workforce development to Summer jobs programs for our youth. Measures like the apprenticeship ordinance we recently passed speak to the kind of programs we should  encourage.

But remedying our public safety deficits is priority number one for Tampa. I feel confident that the people of Tampa agree with this sentiment. And I feel confident that our City leaders do, too. We can invest in our people through not only economic empowerment initiatives, but by making sure that their neighborhoods have good response times and proper public safety investments. 
No more incremental, reactive answers responding to public safety challenges. All of the challenges highlighted above are monumental and require a comprehensive vision. We have that comprehensive look through the City of Tampa Public Safety Master Plan. Now we can make this proposed vision an implemented reality with the forthcoming budget through this historic monetary opportunity.

To learn more about Tampa Mayor Jane Castor's budget presentation and more details about what is included, visit the City of Tampa website. Public hearings on the budget are scheduled for September 2021.

Tampa City Councilman Luis Viera was raised in the North Tampa/Temple Terrace area and is a 2000 graduate of the University of South Florida and in 2003 graduated from Stetson College of Law. He was admitted to the Florida Bar in 2003. 

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.