Inside the Uproar Over a Galling Police Union Survey in Tampa

Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty/Tampa PBA
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty/Tampa PBA

In Tampa, a city that has played host to an array of wild police scandals just in the last few months, the next battleground over justice reform is set: an upcoming election that could help decide who appoints—and confirms—the city’s new chief of police.

But things got ugly this week with the appearance of a survey distributed by the police officer’s union, the Tampa Police Benevolent Association, that ignited a furious uproar—complete with allegations of racism, leaked documents, and outright lies.

The union’s questionnaire, first reported by Bay News 9, was given to candidates for Tampa’s upcoming March mayoral and city council races, and is meant to ultimately help the union decide who to endorse. Such documents are not typically the stuff of scandal.

But listed alongside the more than two dozen questions, most of which were predictable and banal, were unusual inquiries that have sparked spiraling outrage.

In addition to asking if candidates had ever participated in a protest or been critical of cops on social media, the survey asks if candidates have ever “been a member of, donated to or supported Black Lives Matters” [sic].

At a City Council Meeting on Thursday, Orlando Gudes—the only Black representative on the council and a former police officer who is not immune to scandal–asked the PBA to apologize for what was included in the survey.

“You know, I filled out the questionnaire and I returned it back to the PBA,” Gudes said at the meeting, according to reporting by Creative Loafing Tampa Bay. “But some of the questions on there I thought were offensive.”

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In an interview with The Daily Beast, PBA President Brandon Barclay shot back at the councilman, claiming without evidence that Gudes had “leaked” the document—which is not exactly top secret—for political gain.

“He plays it off that he’s upset as a Black male, but I find it coincidental,” said Barclay, who is white.

By “coincidental,” Barclay appeared to be referring to ongoing consideration of an amendment allowing an independent attorney to represent the city’s police watchdog organization, the Citizens Review Board.

In an interview, Gudes firmly denied he ever leaked anything, telling The Daily Beast that Barclay should “get his facts straight.”

“He’s a liar,” Gudes told The Daily Beast. “He’s not being truthful.”

When asked to provide evidence of his claims, Barclay told The Daily Beast that he didn’t have “any smoking gun,” but that he stood behind his accusation.

Whatever the council’s plans for police reform, the meeting on Thursday was perhaps most noteworthy for community members and activists sounding off about the PBA survey. Hillsborough NAACP member Connie Burton pointed out that there were no questions about the Proud Boys or the KKK on the document, as Creative Loafing reported.

“That questionnaire that was sent out by the PBA should be denounced by all of you,” Burton said.

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Tampa has been embroiled in questions of police accountability following a series of high-profile scandals. Among them: the resignation of Police Chief Mary O’Connor after she was caught on video asking to get out of a ticket while riding a golf cart with her husband by flashing her badge; an officer being fired for dragging a woman across concrete; and city council members proposing an internal investigation into whether Barclay himself improperly “surveilled” a local activist.

Barclay defended the survey to The Daily Beast on Thursday, claiming that the document was not referring to the larger BLM movement but a specific entity therein.

He also balked at questions about why the survey did not include white nationalist hate organizations—but decided to include BLM, which he falsely likened to “borderline domestic terrorism.”

“I represent the city of Tampa as police officers, so I only asked questions about things that have happened here locally with the city of Tampa Police officers,” said Barclay. “Do we denounce all forms of hate in all forms of violence against police officers or anybody in general? Absolutely.

“But none of these other groups that are mentioned have come to Tampa and thrown mortar fireworks at my police officers,” he added, appearing to allude to the minor burn an officer suffered in the 2020 George Floyd protests.

Extremist organizations like Proud Boys and Three Percenters—whose members are charged with helping to incite the Jan. 6 insurrection—in fact have a “significant presence” in Tampa Bay, according to reporting by WUSF media. And, of course as has been well-documented, alleged violence by Black Lives Matters activists has tended to be far outstripped by acts of violence inflicted upon protesters by police.

If the city council meeting and the spiraling allegations from the union boss and council member were any indication, the furor over the PBA survey will not be abating any time soon.

“It’s racist,” Burton, the NAACP activist, said of the union’s electioneering on Thursday. “And they should be denounced.”

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