by Connor D. Wolf
When it comes to police brutality, Tampa, Fla. is not the first place that comes to mind, but many people within the community claim the city has become an epicenter of abusive cops.
The alleged incidences range from wrongful arrests to excessive force. Police officers involved in the confrontations, however, are rarely disciplined. In some cases, officers are even promoted when the courts rule against their actions, according to first-hand reports. Former Oviedo Police Chief Charles Drago argues the Tampa Police Department actually has policies that promote the rampant abuse of power.
“I have seen police misconduct occur without repercussions from the department,” Drago told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “The lack of accountability goes back to the administration.”
Drago personally saw the problems while serving as senior law enforcement advisor under former Gov. Charlie Crist. It all began in 2001 when a policy designed to evaluate police productivity was implemented in Tampa. The policy aimed to measure arrests or other activities to ensure cops were doing their jobs, this prompted arrests and citations to skyrocket, and even passed cities with higher populations, reports the Tampa Bay Times.
“They have no mechanism to evaluate an officer’s arrest.” Drago notes. “They keep track of arrests but there isn’t any way to evaluate whether they are lawful.”
The problem was that it didn’t evaluate the quality of the arrests or whether they were even lawful. Total arrests made when the review policy was implemented were 22,350, but by 2014 it had increased to 38,102, according to the Tampa Bay Times. Most of the apprehensions were categorized as miscellaneous, which includes minor crimes like driving with a suspended license. 15.7 percent of total arrests were miscellaneous in 2001, but by 2014 it has increased to 57 percent.
Nurse Brenda Bellay, for instance, alleges that she was beaten by cops and wrongfully arrested on two separate occasions. She notes the most recent incident occurred Sept. 13 when she was allegedly assaulted by police. A friend of hers got into a disagreement with a food truck vendor when they were getting lunch when a police officer intervened, but became aggressive towards the friend.
“I got out my phone and started taking pictures,” Bellay told TheDCNF. “He tried to break my phone… He hit me several times. He hit me so hard my phone fell.”
Bellay was able to fix her phone and now awaits her chance to show the video as evidence in court. She knew to take the pictures because she had previously been the victim of police misconduct. A decade earlier in 2005, Bellay was a passenger in a car during a drunk driving stop when Officer Michael Leavy claimed she was acting drunk and arrested her.
“What the police said about me completely contradicted what was in the video,” Bellay recalled. “He said I was acting belligerent but I was not.”
A judge ruled in her favor after reviewing a video of the incident taken from the police car. Leavy was promoted to corporal despite the city being ordered to pay $56,720 for the wrongful arrest. Bellay is skeptical the alleged violent attack a decade later was in retaliation to her court win, but she notes her lawyer is concerned that may have been what happened.
“It does require a change in culture and most likely a talk with the union,” Drago notes. “Its critical for a department to set their values and culture.”
Leavy was accused again of making an unlawful arrest in 2008. Attorney Brent Yessin was at a local restaurant when police arrived to stop a nearby fight between two women. Leavy arrested Yessin when he refused to leave. The court found he was not legally required to leave since he wasn’t obstructing police activities during the occurrence.
“Officer [Robert] Newberry told him to leave or he was going to be arrested,” Leavy recalled in legal briefs obtained by TheDCNF. “He kept going, trying to interrupt, try to talk to them. I told him twice, you need to get out of here; you’re not her lawyer, basically to the effect of, she told you she doesn’t want you to be her lawyer; you need to leave. He still wouldn’t go.”
The police were unable to prove Yessin did anything illegal or was obstructing police activities in any way. Yessin won the case last month and the city settled at $300,000. During the trial, police officials admitted they did not see a need to inform officers of the case or what to avoid so it doesn’t happen again.
Shift bidding has become another department policy which has received criticism. The policy allows police to easily exchange shifts with other officers, a source familiar with the department told TheDCNF. Officers with a history of bad conduct were able to form patrol groups together rather than be separated — allegedly making some shifts much more dangerous for locals than others.
The Tampa Police Department did not respond to a request for comment by TheDCNF.