This past weekend, the Tampa Bay Times reported on evidence that Blacks are being racially profiled and over-policed by law enforcement in Tampa. The paper analyzed twelve years of data on bicycle citations and discovered that of the 10,000 bicycle tickets issued by Tampa Police, 79% were given to Blacks—even though Blacks comprise only a quarter of the city’s population. The investigation also revealed that in 2014, bicycle citations were concentrated in Tampa’s poor, Black neighborhoods.
What has Tampa Police’s targeting of Blacks for bicycle citations accomplished? According to the data, only 20 percent of citations led to arrests. Looking closely at individual citations only raises more questions about the effectiveness of targeting poor Black neighborhoods for bicycle law enforcement. Did it further public safety, for example, for the Tampa Police to confiscate the bike of a 54-year-old man because he couldn't produce a receipt to prove it was his?
This latest analysis of hard data supports what Tampa’s communities of color have long reported—that police routinely target them not because of what they have done, but because of their perceived race and ethnicity.
This disturbing pattern of stopping, questioning, ticketing, and arresting people of color for low-level offenses is not unique to Tampa. In late 2013, civil rights lawsuits were filed against the Miami Gardens Police Department for racially profiling Black men for stops, frisks, searches, and arrests with the result of thousands of baseless police-civilian encounters. On the heels of several high-profile cases of abuse of police force against people of color, there is a call for and expectation of a higher level of transparency and accountability from law enforcement and bias free policing.
Tampa and other cities across Florida must take action. Racial profiling is at odds with our shared American values of fairness and justice – whether it targets people of color in cars, on bikes, or on sidewalks. Such practices betray the U.S. Constitution’s promise of equal protection under the law and guarantee that all people be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.
Just as importantly, racial profiling corrodes the trust between communities and law enforcement that is integral to public safety. Furthermore, even tickets for low-level offenses lead too many people into a cycle of criminal justice involvement with collateral consequences on employment and housing.
It is imperative that we work toward rebuilding trust between law enforcement and communities of color. This applies to Tampa and the entire state. Law enforcement throughout Florida should collect demographic data on police-civilian encounters to enable themselves, the public, and researchers to identify when and how police disproportionately target people of certain racial and ethnic backgrounds for police-civilian encounters.
The collection and publication of data promises to promote transparency and accountability by helping both to identify specific practices that lead to an unwanted result — racial profiling – and help point toward appropriate solutions.
We must have zero tolerance for racial profiling. The ACLU of Florida is fully committed to addressing this problem in Florida.