TAMPA — In a series of campaign ads released this week, three Tampa police officers voice their support for Alex Sink. It's the first time in 20 years that Florida's police union has endorsed a Democrat for governor.
The message: law enforcement supports Sink — an unusual one for a field that has historically leaned conservative.
Several officers in the ads say they've been asked how they could support a Democrat. Martin County Sheriff Robert Crowder said he's received some angry e-mails.
But Rick Cochran, vice president of Tampa's police union and a registered Republican, explains the union's reasoning:
The Florida Police Benevolent Association doesn't want Republican candidate Rick Scott to become governor because Scott supports pension reductions and the privatization of prisons.
That would cause prison guards to be laid off, and it would affect officers' pension plans, said Florida union deputy executive director Matt Puckett.
"Scott just looks at government through the lens of business," Puckett said. "Business is about making a profit, and public safety is about making sure people are safe at night."
Cochran said that some local members have visited the union's office this week to ask why their group would endorse a Democrat. The party has generally carried the perception of being soft on crime.
"When we explain it, the majority get it," he said of the endorsement. "I've had a few people say that they're a Republican, and they just can't do it."
Statewide, the police union represents about 36,000 officers. It endorsed Sink in June but the historic decision didn't garner widespread attention until the ads launched this week.
The Florida Fraternal Order of Police, which represents about 20,000 people, also has endorsed Sink.
Tampa police officer Paul Southwick, who appears in one of the ads, said that even though he's a registered Republican, he's voting for Sink because of the prison and pension issues.
"Sink's putting public safety first, and we don't think Rick Scott is," Southwick said. "Officers tend to favor Republicans, but it doesn't mean they're always going to do that. They're going to pick the candidate that has their best interests in mind."
The two ads first aired on Tuesday. Cochran saw the one he's in at about 5 p.m. that day, and he noticed that "Rick Cochran, detective, Tampa police" appeared on the screen as he spoke.
He immediately called union headquarters, which called police Chief Jane Castor.
In a cell phone conversation with the detective, Castor said she didn't care who he endorsed, Cochran said. She just wanted to make sure he wasn't acting as a Tampa police officer when he did it. As a union representative, he can get involved in politics — but not as an officer.
The department remains neutral on politics, spokeswoman Andrea Davis said.
Cochran assured Castor that the officers filled out "Tampa Police Benevolent Association" as their employer when they showed up to film the ads. They were careful to not wear their uniforms or badges or stand in front of their police vehicles.
The producers added their work titles to the ad later, he said. Because of that, the officers didn't violate department policy, Davis said.
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3433.