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A critical turn for chief

When news broke months ago that a Tampa DUI sergeant was in the middle of what looked like an arrest setup, police Chief Jane Castor stood by her officer.

Then came the critics.

Why hadn't Castor opened an internal investigation? Why didn't she immediately take the sergeant off DUI patrol?

Now she says she wishes she had done her own inquiry.

Well, not "wish," Castor later corrected. Hindsight is 20/20, she said.

"I made a decision based on the information I had then," she said.

Criticism is unfamiliar territory for the chief, who has generally received high marks from the public and press during her four years at the helm of Tampa's 1,300-member Police Department.

If a person who wears a uniform and carries a gun in the name of public service can be considered a rock star, it's Castor.

When two of her officers were gunned down in 2010, she never faltered during the exhausting four-day manhunt for the killer. She helped coordinate a massive police presence for the 2012 Republican National Convention and did it so smoothly she got thank-you flowers from protesters. She drew a crowd of reporters last month after she accidentally sliced off the tip of her trigger finger and immediately started training to shoot with her middle. ("Not news," she declared.)

But since the DUI scandal involving a veteran officer in her department exploded into public view, Castor, 53, has for the first time faced disapproval: that she was slow to act, that she was too supportive of her sergeant and longtime colleague.

Her boss, Mayor Bob Buckhorn, says criticism comes with the job.

"I think all of us in these kinds of positions make the best decisions we can with the information we have available to us," he said. "The difference is, we do it with the whole world watching."

• • •

Castor called it a circus.

On Jan. 25, a Tampa lawyer claimed he was set up for a DUI arrest by opposing counsel during a bitter trial. Two days earlier, after court, a pretty paralegal bought that lawyer drinks at Malio's steakhouse, all the while updating her bosses by phone.

One of those lawyers tipped off his close friend — Tampa police Sgt. Ray Fernandez — who waited outside the bar and ultimately pulled over the lawyer, C. Philip Campbell, driving the paralegal's car.

"We stand behind our officer," Castor said in a prepared statement then. "He did what DUI officers do every day, and that is arrest impaired drivers." Her spokeswoman said Fernandez had been a pawn in what happened that night.

Castor could have opened an investigation but did not.

For six months, questions about the arrest simmered. The FBI and the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office both began investigating. In a blistering report released two weeks ago, state prosecutors announced they were dropping the DUI charge and indicated Campbell's arrest was a setup involving opposing counsel.

It also raised questions about the credibility of Fernandez and arresting officer Tim McGinnis. And a particularly damaging bit of information emerged: Fernandez texted 92 times that night with his tipster friend from the opposing firm, Adams & Diaco. Fernandez deleted the texts the next day, he says by accident.

The calls for accountability grew louder.

Campbell's lawyer held a news conference to say he had no confidence in Castor's ability to objectively investigate. An item in the weekly newspaper La Gaceta's in-the-know politics column began: "We never criticize police Chief Jane Castor, but . . ."

Asked why she didn't immediately launch an internal investigation, Castor says she didn't know then what she knows now. But some point out that's the purpose of an investigation: discovery.

Like a sailor correcting a boat in the wind, the chief has been changing the department's tone.

Initially, she said Fernandez showed poor judgment in taking the tip from a friend. This week, she confirmed that Fernandez originally told her only of "a few" texts — not the 92 prosecutors counted. She called the discrepancy beyond "disappointing."

"I guarantee, had Jane known that at that time, her response would have been different," said the mayor, who issued a strong statement of his own this week promising "swift and appropriate" action if there was wrongdoing by police.

The FBI is now investigating, so it's a tough time to open an internal investigation. Because of what are called Garrity Rights, officers can be required to answer internal affairs detectives' questions while that unit is working with the FBI on a criminal investigation — but none of that information could be used in the FBI's query.

Castor can open a conflict-free inquiry when the FBI is done, which could be months away. She won't say whether she intends to.

And she wants to be clear she will not bend to pressure.

"I do what I believe is in the best interests of our community and our department," she said.

• • •

Still, for the first time in her career as chief, she has spent the past two weeks trying to stay ahead of the news.

Castor said she and her top staff were already discussing how they would reorganize the DUI unit to provide more oversight when a critical letter from Campbell's lawyer, John Fitzgibbons, prompted her to announce the change earlier than planned.

The next week, the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office confirmed it would inform defense attorneys who have pending cases involving either officer about the DUI setup allegations — something defense lawyers could try to use to attack the officers' credibility in their own cases.

The next day, Castor finalized plans for a DUI review team to scour both officers' open cases and random other DUIs.

Castor got some people of note to serve on the team — including retired Hillsborough Circuit Judge Barbara Fleischer, who has a reputation for being both tough and ethical, and statewide prosecutor Nick Cox, known for his frankness and transparency when he was with the Department of Children and Families.

"By appointing people of that caliber and that reputation to review this matter — I think that sends a strong signal that the facts are going to come out and this is going to be appropriately handled," said Tampa City Council member Harry Cohen.

It's a step toward regaining confidence in her department, Castor said, which she knows has been waning.

Last week she said the scandal has cast a shadow not only on the DUI unit but the entire agency. That bothers her most.

"We have an outstanding organization," she said.

• • •

Castor has been with the agency almost 30 years. She is well-known around town, stopped by strangers and politicians alike. She is tall and slender with a cap of blond hair and a steady, no-nonsense manner that hides a wicked sense of humor.

She is a mother of two boys and a regular gym-goer. She spends her days in meetings about crime trends and quality of life issues. She sprinkles her schedule with public speaking engagements. She's always in high demand.

Castor is the city's first female and first gay police chief, things neither she nor Tampa has ever made much of an issue.

Instead, other police agencies want to talk to her about tips for crime reduction. National news agencies want her to opine on Tampa's tax fraud problem and, well, being a female police chief.

So how does the mayor feel about the chief given the current scandal? No differently.

"She, as far as I'm concerned, is rock solid," said Buckhorn. "I think she's one of the best police officers in the country. She continues to have my utmost respect."

Former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio worked side-by-side with Castor after the 2010 police shootings and during the tense manhunt that followed. Both were praised for putting a dignified, professional face to the tragedy.

Asked about Castor in the current headline-making case, Iorio, who has written a book on leadership, said, "Jane is always going to do the right thing. That's just a given."

Even if it takes longer than some might have liked?

"Yes. That's part of leadership," Iorio said. "Leadership is sometimes a trial and error process.''

Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@tampabay.com. Sue Carlton can be reached at carlton@tampabay.com.

A critical turn for chief 08/10/13 [Last modified: Saturday, August 10, 2013 7:10pm]

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