Tampa police charge protesters with criminal mischief, while the ‘Back the Blue’ mural is ‘under investigation’

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On Sunday, more than 12 hours after Creative Loafing Tampa Bay’s initial email to its on-call public information officer, Tampa Police responded to say that on Saturday at 6:31 p.m., “Several individuals were seen throwing paint along a sidewalk at Curtis Hixon Park.”

Photos shot by CL contributor Dave Decker show red, yellow, orange, green and blue paint on a walkway running north to south across the park. In social media videos, protesters question officers while folks being arrested can be heard asking “What am I being detained for?”

“Multiple people were taken into custody without incident and charged with Criminal Mischief,” Vanessa Nettingham, who’s normally the department’s Social Media/Community Engagement Coordinator, added.

When asked about any potential charges for members of a group who completed an unpermitted “Bock the Blub” mural on Madison Street on August 1, Nettingham said, “TPD provided comment about the murals Thursday.”

Nettingham was pointing to an August 6 press conference where Police Chief Brian Dugan provided an update on an officer who was likely cut by shattered glass as he backed his patrol vehicle away from a suspect who attempted to shoot the officer on July 30—an act that is nothing to blink at, even if that young officer is a taxpayer-funded public servant.

In the press conference’s Q&A portion, Dugan responded to a question about the Windings-esque mural by saying that, “There was no approval for that so that's under investigation.”

He added that there’s a criminal investigation underway regarding folks who spilled red and black paint on the ugly public art; those folks are the same ones police say spray-painted “Fuck 12” on the police headquarters.

In his comments, Dugan conceded that the U.S. is a country built on protest and freedom of speech before adding that, “What's disappointing to me is that people are arguing over murals, instead of realizing, we've got major problems in our city.”

“And I'm not downplaying any of the civil rights issues right now, but murals are not part of civil rights in my opinion. Everybody's entitled to their first amendment speech, and it doesn't matter who they're backing,” Dugan said. “I'm more worried about the real problems of what's going on—and I and I have to be careful because my words will get twisted—I'm not saying any of that stuff are not real problems, but I'm more worried about the gun violence as opposed to, who painted a mural and who didn't." 

The problem with that statement is that the optics of who’s getting arrested and who isn’t seem to suggest that illegally shutting down a street is perfectly fine, but only if you “Back the Blue.”

In his press conference, Dugan lauded the TPD officer who put himself in danger to get the July 30 suspect off the street. He called TPD the “guardians of the city” (a city the chief doesn’t even live in, mind you).

But those counter-muralists—also known as protesters, activists and demonstrators—are also met with force and getting pepper-sprayed on other days all while getting arrested and racking up police records that can potentially ruin their own lives. 

Records show that charges for protesters arrested at Curtis Hixon on Saturday include resisting arrest without violence. Some of those arrested are out on bond while others are still being held, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

Protesters and activists are putting their futures at risk, too, so that their city might reimagine and reform their police force in a way that doesn’t disproportionately put Black lives in danger (proposing to increase the police budget by $13 million is an odd place to start, by the way)

In a Monday email to CL, TPD spokesperson Jamel Lanee said that her department was told that the unpermitted “Back the Blue” mural was approved. When asked by CL who told TPD it was approved, TPD said "this is all being investigated."

So CL asked, "To be clear: TPD was told the "Back the Blue" mural was approved, but TPD doesn't know who told the department it was approved," to which TPD said, "To be clear: 'The case is under investigation.'”

“The group that painted Back The Blue mural will be investigated for the same statutes,” Lanee said “On Monday, City Officials researched the information to learned it was not. (which we now know and you've reported).”

She added that once TPD learned of this information, its legal team researched FL Statutes and City codes to see which ones, if any, were violated.

“The persons who police are looking for that threw paint on top of the Back The Blue mural, put tar on the road and vandalized HQ is being investigated for the same statutes,” Lanee said. “Specifically for the tar on the road (safety hazard on the road, a car could have slid through it and potentially caused a crash. that's why the road was closed to deal with that). and vandalizing HQ.”

Lanee added that, “The group that tried to paint on Saturday were taken into custody for violating FL Statute 806.13 Criminal Mischief, FL Statute 316.0775 Interfering with traffic device, painting over lines., City Code 1-21 Criminal Mischief/Damage to city property.”

“I have to go back and listen to the presser,” Lanee said, “but I believe the Chief said moving forward  that ANY group who paints without a permit will be arrested for criminal mischief.”

CL asked, if that means the painters behind the “Back the Blue” will be taken into custody under Statute 806.13 or Statute 316.077? Or do those “Back the Blue” muralists get a pass this time? TPD's response: "This is all being investigated."

If you’re one of the protesters arrested at Curtis Hixon Park on Saturday and would like to share your experience with CL—on or off the record or on background—then please don’t hesitate to email [email protected] or DM me on Twitter so that we can connect there or on Signal. —Ray Roa

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08/08/2020 | Photos by Dave Decker