By Tony Marrero
Times Staff Writer
Published: September 14, 2016
TAMPA — A faith-based coalition of activists is calling on Hillsborough County law enforcement officials to take action to reduce the county’s incarceration rate and build trust in the communities they serve.
The call by Faith in Florida came Tuesday with the release of a study that shows, in part, the per capita jail population in Hillsborough increased by 45 percent between 1985 and 2014. The study also found that blacks are 3.8 times more likely that whites to end up in the county jail.
“State Attorney Mark Ober, Sheriff David Gee, Police Chief Eric Ward and city and county elected officials are responsible for the safety and wellbeing of all people in the county, but they have pursued policies that effectively criminalize Black and Latino communities,” the report’s authors wrote.
PICO National Network, comprised of interdenominational activist groups throughout the country including Faith in Florida, drafted the study as part of its “Live Free” campaign to reduce U.S. incarceration rates. It’s part of a collection of 19 studies across 10 states.
“This report documents that over the last 20 years our practices and policies in criminal justice have resegregated our city and our county,” the Rev. Russell Meyer, executive director of Florida Council of Churches and co-chairman of Tampa for Justice, said at a news conference in front of Ober’s office. “You look at the jail and you see it’s a place where people of color are collected and you begin to ask, what is wrong with this picture?”
The report cites the Tampa Police Department’s disproportionate ticketing of black bicyclists as an example of how disparate treatment of communities of color fosters distrust.
The Tampa Bay Times found that even though blacks make up about a quarter of the city’s population, they received 79 percent of the bike tickets. A U.S. Justice Department review done in response to the Times’ work concluded that the intent of the traffic stops represented an effort to fight crime and enhance safety but instead burdened the communities where the enforcement was focused.
More recently, a white Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office deputy shot and killed Levonia Riggins while helping to serve a search warrant for drugs on Riggins’ home. Sheriff’s officials acknowledge Riggins, who is black, was unarmed when he was shot in his bedroom. They also acknowledge they found no weapons and only a small amount of marijuana.
The shooting is still under investigation by the Sheriff’s Office. Citing a conflict of interest, Ober has asked Gov. Rick Scott to appoint a special prosecutor to review the incident.
The PICO report offers a range of ideas for best policing practices, such as bias training for officers and creating a transparent policy for evaluating use-of-force incidents. The report also recommends creating civilian review boards for law enforcement agencies.
The city of Tampa launched a civilian review board for the police department in February, thought critics who have watched the panel work say members are hamstrung and have accomplished little. The number of bicyclists stopped by police and ticketed continues to decline as a result of a change in tactics by the department.
“I think our chief is on record with his efforts to build trusting relationships with the community,” police spokesman Steve Hegarty said.
The Sheriff’s Office did not respond to requests for comment.
The report found that more than 21.4 percent of people who were in jail in Hillsborough County in 2014 served more than one week before they were released without being charged. Nearly 9 percent spent more than a month before being released without being charged or found guilty.
Those numbers show an “urgent need” to adopt pre-trial release policies such as eliminating cash bail and setting fees and fines based on ability to repay, the report’s authors wrote.
The report called for Ober’s office to adopt policies to send more defendants in need of drug treatment and mental health services into pretrial diversion programs. And activists criticized the rate at which Ober’s office prosecutes minors as adults.
“This county puts more young people in adult prisons than any other county in the state of Florida,” Meyer said. “What we end up doing is incarcerating large numbers of people of color and then sending them back to neighborhoods where there are no meaningful jobs.”
Defendants can request that bonds be reduced or eliminated based on ability to pay, Mark Cox, spokesman for the State Attorney’s Office, said in an email. Qualifying defendants can be released on pretrial house arrest.
Cox said the office considers many factors when considering how to prosecute a juvenile, such as age, seriousness of the crime and criminal history. Juvenile cases filed to adult court typically involve violent crimes, firearms or defendants with multiple arrests. The office has an internal review process “to promote fairness and consistency,” Cox said.
Cox noted the Hillsborough judicial circuit has several pretrial programs for juvenile cases, defendants with drug or mental health issues, veterans, criminal traffic and misdemeanor cases.
Hillsborough recently launched a pilot program to study the effects of civil citations for first-time juvenile offenders caught with small amounts of marijuana and arrested for other minor misdemeanors. Tampa has a civil citation program for adults caught with small amounts of pot.
“We are always interested in additional services and programs that can be incorporated into the criminal justice system,” Cox said.
Contact Tony Marrero at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.