Last week, I attended a Town Hall in Tampa that was convened by Attorney Barry Cohen to address race relations and law enforcement. There was a panel of 14 individuals that included judges, attorneys, the Public Defender, educators, the Tampa Police Department, the Sheriff’s office, parents, and a youth. There were over 200 people in attendance representing a cross-section of Tampa and Hillsborough.
The conversation was very timely, in light of the recent publication of a report showing that blacks are being disproportionately over-policed in Tampa. Attendees shared stories of their experiences with law enforcement, judges, the school system, the criminal justice system, and the devastation to communities due to the intersection of race and poverty, and the interface with law enforcement and the courts.
The stories made it abundantly clear that there is lack of trust of law enforcement and a lack of respect between law enforcement and the community, particularly the youth. Our young people are hurting and are in need of support, parenting, counseling, recreational activities, and rehabilitative programs.
The stories shared made it clear that systems are currently failing our children. I heard painful stories of parents with children in the juvenile justice system and criminal justice system. I heard of a husband being ripped from his family with a life sentence due to possession of a gun. I heard about corruption among law enforcement and prosecutors who have lied and the irreparable damage this can cause in young people’s lives.
Repeatedly, individuals expressed concern about the bicycle stops in Tampa. They called for the Tampa Police Department to suspend the bicycle stops and for DOJ to investigate the practices of Tampa Police Department. We agree, and have convened a coalition of community groups calling for the same thing.
There were numerous solutions offered that included early childhood education (0-3 years), mentors, after school programs, real community policing, regular meetings with the Mayor and the community, regular meetings with the police and the community, gun buy back, the need for jobs for young people, greater involvement of the business sector in providing opportunities for employment.
Not everyone had a chance to speak but everyone who spoke was heard. The question is what will happen from here.
For the longtime residents of Tampa, this is not new. It has been said before. They have been there and done that. In light of what has happened in Ferguson and presently in Baltimore, there is urgency to find real solutions to address the underlying problems for long-term and systemic change.