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Black Lives Matter Tampa: On Police Reform And The Movement Going Forward

protesters hold signs that say black lives matter
Daylina Miller/WUSF Public Media
Protesters gathered at a demonstration organized by Black Lives Matter: Tampa and other anti-racism groups at Cyrus Greene Park in Tampa.

The recent marches against systemic racism and police brutality in the Tampa Bay area aren’t as large as they previously had been, but activists say the pressure to make changes hasn’t diminished.

WUSF's Daylina Miller spoke with Donna Davis, the co-founder of Black Lives Matter: Tampa, about the future of the movement.

Davis: People were sidelined by COVID-19. And as such, they found something to do out of that. Some of those people are going to develop more sophisticated politics. Some folks are just going to go back to school in the fall, and it's going to be some really cool pictures that they have to show their kids and grandkids later in life.

But then there will be a certain number of these individuals who will become community leaders, and many will go on to become elected officials, because what they're learning about their government and about policing is going to guide them into a line of duty that they hadn't considered previously.

Miller: So the protests themselves are largely a way to spread awareness. It's an outlet for people to express grief and anger and frustration. What else might be happening beyond the protests to effect change long term?

Davis: Well, when you're getting calls from city officials, asking about what you're doing, inviting you to be on (the) reform task force, that's when you know that they're feeling the pressure of the people in the streets. There have been quite a number of meetings with various activists and organizers, people from our organization being only one such group, and we're having different sorts of conversations.

Miller: What responses are you seeing from local officials and leaders? What's been proposed to happen locally? And what sort of response have you gotten from that?

Davis: City officials don't like the term “defund the police.” It invokes the idea that there won't be any cops. It'll become the Wild West. That is not what we're talking about.

What we're talking about in Tampa right now is we have a bloated police budget. Ninety percent of the calls that are coming in to Tampa Police Department are requests for non-violent interventions, things like drug overdoses. It's not because someone is robbing a bank.

Our response to the notion that police are stretched so thin is that you don't have to do that work. You're not equipped to do that work. You don't want to do that work. And that work keeps you away from the serious business of law enforcement.

And so what we've proposed locally is there is a program called CAHOOTS in Oregon. First responders are not officers, more often than not. These people are trained to intervene in these situations and to de-escalate them.

Now there's been this task force. (Their meeting) was a performative event that gave the mayor (Jane Castor) and Police Chief Brian Dugan the opportunity to appear as if they're working diligently to listen to the citizens and to really move us to the place we want to go.

But how can we do that when the City Council folks are one-by-one saying, “I don't support this;” when the mayor says publicly, “I don't support de-funding the police,” then says “we need police reform,” then shows up to a meeting and says, “I think that the relationship with Tampa and the TPD is good. I know a lot of you don't, but we wouldn't be here if there weren't problems.” We're having a very difficult time with these mental gymnastics.

Miller: It seems like the momentum went longer than a lot of other movements in the past. But it also seems like some of the protests are getting a little bit smaller. Is that the natural progression of this sort of movement? Or is there disappointment that maybe white people are not turning out numbers like they were at the beginning?

Davis: I don't know that people are necessarily no longer interested. And we still haven't fully reopened our society. So people still have a lot of time and attention to spare. I think that people are looking for other ways to engage the notion that we have to dismantle. We're reshaping, like we went to the storming period.

And I think now, we are starting to norm. Like, how do we combat institutional racism and police brutality in a sustained way that actually will combat it and have impact? So maybe they're not in the streets. If you look at social media, the conversation is still very prominent, people are still very much engaged and interested.

Black Lives Matter: Tampa co-founder Donna Davis talks about 26-year-old Jonas Joseph, who was shot and killed by Tampa Police officers in April. The group is demanding more answers from TPD after a state attorney said there wasn't any evidence of the officers' wrongdoing.

Members of Black Lives Matter Tampa are demanding that the Tampa Police Department provide more evidence in the case of a Black man killed in April by officers.

State Attorney Andrew Warren announced last week that his office declined to press charges against the five officers who fired at 26-year-old Jonas Joseph.

Police say Joseph was pulled over in connection to another shooting, and that he shot at officers after ramming a police car.

Davis said there's not enough evidence to close the case.

"They didn't check his hands for gun residue,” Davis said. “They told us that there was no way they could say definitively if he fired the gun or not. There were no shell casings recovered from the scene."

None of the officers were wearing body cameras when the incident occurred April 28, and none of their vehicles were equipped with dashboard cameras.

I took my first photography class when I was 11. My stepmom begged a local group to let me into the adults-only class, and armed with a 35 mm disposable camera, I started my journey toward multimedia journalism.