Buckhorn faces challenge on makeup, power of Tampa police review board

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and some city council members seem set on a collision course over who has the authority to create a police review board and how it should operate.

Buckhorn said Friday he has sole oversight over the Tampa Police Department and last week signed an executive order that establishes a Citizens Review Board and gives him power to appoint nine of its 11 members.

That is disputed by Council Chairman Frank Reddick who wants the council to have more say on who serves on the board. Buckhorn has also angered local activists who fear he will create a police-friendly board lacking in accountability and the power needed to tackle police wrongdoing.

Members of Tampa for Justice, a coalition of groups that includes the NAACP, ACLU and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, instead want a review board more representative of the community and one that has power to subpoena witnesses in cases where officers use force or conduct high-speed pursuits.

The issue is likely to come to a head Thursday when activists from the group say they will pack City Hall for a meeting that the council scheduled to discuss civilian oversight of the police department, before Buckhorn made his announcement.

“The Citizens Review Board needs to be objective; it needs to be fair; it needs to be made up of actual citizens,” Tampa for Justice organizer Kelly Benjamin said during a Tuesday rally outside the police department’s downtown headquarters. “The mayor slapped this community in the face last Friday and we’re here to respond.”

The review board created by Buckhorn is modeled on the St. Petersburg’s Civilian Review Committee, established in the 1990s when St. Petersburg struggled with a series of riots and civil unrest sparked by the death of a man in police custody.

All of the nine members of the St. Petersburg board are appointed by the city’s mayor.

Buckhorn said he gave the council power to appoint two members because it had been pushing for the board to be established.

“By law, I didn’t have to give them any,” Buckhorn said Friday.

Buckhorn’s stance was backed by a legal opinion from the City Attorney Julia Mandell, who said the city’s charter gives only the mayor the authority to create a body that reviews police.

Reddick said he plans to ask City Council attorney Martin Shelby at the Thursday meeting for an opinion on whether council has the authority to create a review board.

Emails show that the two city attorneys disagree, with Shelby writing to Mandell that he saw nothing in the city’s charter that prevents council from creating a review board through an ordinance.

Shelby also wrote that Mandell’s opinion supporting Buckhorn may amount to a conflict of interest.

“…it will favor your other client, the Mayor, to the detriment of City Council,” Shelby wrote.

Mandell said she does not see a conflict of interest since the council has not taken any action on this issue.

As with St. Petersburg, Tampa has no plans to give its review board subpoena power.

That means for cases involving use of force, the board will have to rely on internal affairs reports conducted by police officers investigating their colleagues, said Laila Abdelaziz, Legislative and Government Affairs Director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

“We hear from people who feel negatively impacted or have experienced police abuse and they reference this ‘blue code’ of police officers protecting police officers,” Abdelaziz said. “The reality is its going to have to subpoena witnesses and have that legal authority to do so.”

Kurt Donley, who monitored St. Petersburg’s review board as a former chairman of the St. Petersburg NAACP’s criminal justice committee, said the lack of subpoena power handicapped the board.

“They don’t have any teeth,” Donley said. “They don’t have any ability to do any investigation.”

But subpoena power for a civilian review board is the exception rather than the norm, said Liana Perez, director of operation for the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, a non-profit groups that advocates for more civilian input into police practices.

“A lot of the boards, especially those who are not full time, set up with offices and staff — it’s just not feasible in the limited time they have to review cases to be able to do investigations,” Perez said.

Among those that can subpoena are review boards in New York and Miami.

Mandell said the Miami review board’s subpoena power was successfully challenged by police unions and was not enforceable until the city amended its charter.

Neither Buckhorn nor the council can create a review board with subpoena power unless it is accompanied by a change in the city charter, a move that would likely require a voter referendum, Mandell said.

Tampa’s review board will be made up of volunteers who are either city residents or business owners. Members will serve four year terms.

Tampa Councilwoman Lisa Montelione said that creates a potential problem since the mayor also serves the same term.

“Everybody who comes in can appoint their own people,” Montelione said. “Whoever the mayor is at the time will de facto control that board. That I have a problem with.”

codonnell@tampatrib.com

Twitter: codonnellTBO

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