Tampa City Council moves to dissolve police review board in response to new Florida law

In a 6-1 vote on Thursday, Tampa City Council began the process of dismantling its Citizens Review Board

Citing a new law set to take effect July 1, council member Luis Viera said the city’s CRB could not continue in its current form. 

READ: DeSantis signs bill blocking civilian review boards from investigating law enforcement in Florida

"I believe in the board, and I think if we were to have taken a vote up here, if we were on the legislature, we would have all voted against this [bill], but unfortunately this ties our hands," Viera explained.  

Councilwoman Lynn Hurtak was the lone dissenting vote.

The move comes weeks before a new state law that severely restricts the ability of local municipalities to create civilian oversight boards is set to take effect.

HB 601 prevents investigations of local law enforcement by civilian review boards and establishes new rules pertaining to their formation and makeup. 

"These men and women do not need to be scrutinized again and again by a committee that has no idea what they're talking about," Governor DeSantis said at the bill’s signing in April. "They're not free to use law enforcement as political piñatas."

Tampa’s CRB was formed in 2015 in response to outcry over a Tampa Bay Times investigation into bicycle citations that uncovered evidence of racial profiling. 

The Tampa CRB is a volunteer panel of citizens who conduct independent reviews of completed police disciplinary cases and evaluate issues of importance to the community and the Tampa Police Department. 

While it reports its findings to the City of Tampa Mayor and TPD and may make recommendations for possible policy changes, the CRB does not have the power to subpoena or take any disciplinary actions.

Civil rights activists urged councilmembers to reconsider on Thursday, pointing to discrepancies in the new law they felt would allow the CRB to continue. 

As bill co-sponsor, Rep. Danny Alvarez, explained during Thursday’s council meeting, however, all 21 of Florida’s local CRBs must be dissolved once the new law takes effect and warned against any attempt to find a loophole. 

"I would tell you that having worked on this bill and having cosponsored at myself, that if you were to find some sort of way that you’re going to keep it going then we’ll just have to come back to the dais to tighten it up," said Alvarez.  "I hate to be that way and talk about it, but the intent of this was to uniformly make these [civilian oversight agencies] across the state of Florida shut down by July 1, and then they can reopen at the will of the city of Tampa should you want that underneath the statue’s rules."

Alvarez’ comments are a departure from comments DeSantis has made on the law. 

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"[CRB members] can meet, they can exercise whatever First Amendment that they want, but they don't have the right to initiate disciplinary proceedings," the governor explained in April. 

Mayor Jane Castor, who’d expressed hope earlier this year that the new law wouldn’t affect Tampa’s CRB, considering the board’s limited powers, called the situation unfortunate. 

"It's disappointing because Tampa’s Citizens Review Board helped foster community trust in the Police Department and had an excellent working relationship with the department," said Mayor Jane Castor. 

The new law doesn’t ban CRBs entirely but does prohibit them from having the ability to open their own investigations or initiate disciplinary proceedings.

The bill will allow sheriffs and police chiefs to set up new civilian oversight boards that may review policies and procedures of law-enforcement agencies provided that the board includes at least three and up to seven members that are appointed by the sheriff (or chief of police) and that at least one member is a retired law enforcement officer.

Tampa City Council is expected to formally vote to dissolve the CRB in August and has canceled all upcoming meetings for the board. 

TPD released this statement on the decision:

"The Tampa Police Department is committed to transparency and working in partnership with our community to make Tampa safer, together. Chief Bercaw looks forward to establishing a Civilian Oversight Board, as outlined by HB 601 when the law goes into effect, and welcomes any input current Tampa CRB members would offer to share."