Tampa police increased its use of force in 2020. Here’s why.

Tampa police increased its use of force in 2020. Here’s why.
·6 min read

TAMPA — Tampa police officers used some types of force more often in 2020, an increase stemming in part to the civil unrest last summer and an uptick in violent crime, officials say.

Officers used so-called impact weapons such as beanbag rounds 148 times last year, according to Tampa Police Department data provided to the Tampa Bay Times. That’s about five and a half times the previous year’s number of 26.

The department also saw a marked increase in instances of police officers pointing their firearms at people, from 698 in 2019 to 891 last year — an increase of nearly 28 percent, the data show.

The jump in the impact weapon category is due largely to police clashes with crowds who took to city streets to demonstrate against police brutality after George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer, Police Chief Brian Dugan said. Tampa’s protests were mostly peaceful, but some resulted in violent clashes with police.

“We have a whole bunch of protests but we only had a problem with a few, but (during) those few there were a lot of incidents of use of force,” Dugan said.

Of the impact weapon tally, 120 were related to civil unrest, according to the department. Most involved bean bag rounds fired during rioting in the University area on May 30 and into the next day, officials said.

The use of chemical agents such as pepper spray and pepperball rounds also ticked up to 120, an increase of about 6 percent from the previous year.

Dugan and the department drew criticism from protestors and civil rights advocates for the use of bean bag rounds, pepper spray and tear gas on protestors last year. So called “less lethal rounds” can cause serious injuries and, in some cases, death. One man who said he suffered a traumatic brain injury after getting hit in the head with a rubber bullet during a protest downtown on May 31 is suing the department, claiming officers used excessive force. The department has not commented on the suit but Dugan has previously said that Tampa police never used rubber bullets during the unrest.

A couple of days later, on the night of June 2 and into the morning of June 3, police used nonlethal rounds, pepper canisters and, in one instance, tear gas to disperse crowds that had gathered downtown. Dugan initially denied using tear gas but police officials learned later that one officer dropped a tear gas cannister, also known as CS gas, at his feet to disperse protestors who had surrounded him.

Dugan has defended his officers’ actions and said none have been found to have violated department policy during protest response.

An increase in violent crime likely contributed to the dramatic increase in the pointed firearms category, according to an internal “response to resistance” summary report sent to Dugan on June 2.

“With more violent offenders and offenses, a correlation to certain higher response levels, such as pointing firearms, is to be expected,” Cpl. Jared Douds of the department’s training unit wrote in the report.

“Generally,” Douds wrote, “it appears that officers are adhering to response to resistance policies and are using force appropriate levels and only when necessary.”

Some use-of-force categories, such as using countermeasures like kicks and punches, decreased, attributed in part to the overall decline in police interaction with the public during the coronavirus pandemic, according to the report. The number of arrests dropped dramatically in 2020, down to 13,118 from 18,580 in the previous year.

The department provided the Times with use-of-force data for 2020 using two different methodologies due to a recent changes mandated by the FBI. The FBI, which launched a national use-of-force database in 2019, is requiring law enforcement agencies that participate in the voluntary program to change their methodology to an “incident based” system.

The old system was based on the number of people involved in an incident. For example, an incident involving five officers who fired their service weapons at one person counted as five shootings. Under the new incident-based reporting system, it would count as one.

Under the new methodology, the number of incidents involving impact weapons in 2020 was 32. The tally for pointed firearms incidents was 490 using the new system. There were 29 incidents involving chemical agents.

“Overall, this new methodology should provide a more accurate picture of the department’s actions, a clearer picture of the Tampa Police Department’s activities to the public and a more transparent accounting of the department’s response to resistance,” Douds wrote in the report.

The department logged two incidents last year involving officers firing their service weapons.

One was the fatal shooting of Jonas Joseph on April 28, after police said Joseph rammed a patrol car and fired shots at seven officers surrounding him. The Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office found the five officers who returned fire were justified in using deadly force, but Joseph’s family said unanswered questions about the shooting remain.

The other incident was the Oct. 20 fatal shooting of 26-year-old Dominique Mulkey, who police say brandished a handgun while stealing food from a Dollar General and raised the gun toward two responding officers. Mulkey’s family said he was hard of hearing and intellectually disabled. The State Attorney’s Office found the two officers were justified in opening fire.

The department has started a monthly review of response-to-resistance statistics and created a data integrity unit to run reports that will be posted online in the future. And now that the department has issued body cameras to all officers, sergeants must review any use-of-force incident beyond a handcuffing, Dugan said.

“The hardest part of all of this is how do you get an accurate depiction of what’s going on in the streets, because it’s important for transparency but it’s also important for training and making sure we’re doing things properly,” Dugan said.

He said another important metric is the number of use-of-force complaints the department receives. The department generally gets a small number of those types of complaint each year, Dugan said. In 2020, the department logged one.

David Simanoff, president of the Greater Tampa Chapter of the ACLU of Florida, said the report doesn’t have enough contextual information, such as what alleged behavior prompted the uses of force and what the outcomes were, to draw strong conclusions.

Simanoff said internal reporting is important, but the city still needs a more independent citizens review board to review police actions. He also pointed to Florida’s controversial anti-riot bill, signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis in April, that among many things immediately enhanced criminal penalties for crimes committed during protests that turn violent.

“This just meant it’s more important than ever before for the police to deescalate situations and treat all protestors fairly,” he said.

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