TAMPA — A few minutes after Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn announced his appointment for the city’s new police chief on Thursday, a group of civil rights activists and city officials made an announcement of their own.
If new Police Chief Eric Ward doesn’t agree to suspend the police department’s practice of issuing citations to bicyclists, they will work to keep the city council from confirming his appointment.
The bulk of bicycling-related citations the department issues go to African Americans, mostly in poor neighborhoods across Tampa, the department’s records show.
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“This policy needs to come to an end. We’re tired of this, we’re tired of seeing our young African American kids targeted,” said Tampa City Council Chairman Frank Reddick, who represents the Sulphur Springs area. “I’m here today to support all the organizations that are pushing the mayor and pushing the newly elected police chief to bring about some change.”
The 3 p.m. press conference by Reddick and others came an hour after Buckhorn’s press conference, at which he announced he had chosen Ward, who is black, as the city’s new police chief. The appointment, though, still needs to be confirmed by the city council.
Those with Reddick at the later press conference included city council member Lisa Montelione and members of the national and state American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP, the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the League of United Latin American Citizens.
About a dozen civil rights groups sent a letter to Buckhorn last week asking for a stop to bike citations until a Department of Justice review of the practice is completed, said Joyce Hamilton Henry, director of advocacy for the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU is also conducting its own investigation into the department’s bike stop practices, Henry said.
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Buckhorn and outgoing Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor last week asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate how the department hands out traffic citations, including bicycle citations. In the meantime, the policy is unchanged.
“Dragnets that are focused on certain populations are a violation of the rights of all of us, so all of us have to be concerned when people are stopped because they are part of a demographic that is believed to be a part of crime,” said Rev. Russell Meyer of St. Paul Lutheran Church.
Such efforts are akin to New York City’s stop-and-frisk policy, which was deemed unconstitutional in court, said Warren Hope Dawson, a Tampa lawyer and past president of the National Bar Association.
Tampa police say the bike stops are meant to curb the high number of bicycle thefts in Tampa and credit the stops with helping police cut down on the number of illegal guns and drugs on the streets. They say bicyclists are only stopped for valid infractions like traffic offenses or not having property safety equipment, like lights at night.
Instead of ticketing cyclists for small infractions like that, police should simply give the rider a light and issue a warning, said Bruce Haynes, founder of the Men of Power. He said he has been stopped and questioned by police in his College Hill neighborhood “more than I can count on my hands and toes” for things like stopping on the sidewalk to talk to someone in a car.
“We know why were getting stopped, and it provokes people to anger when they’re being stopped without cause,” Haynes said.
“Color shouldn’t be an issue. The issue is making sure the police are living by the rules and treating everyone with respect.”