Former Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor faces a simmering and pointed question in her who-doesn’t-already-know-she’s-running bid to be the city’s next mayor:
What about the police department’s controversial and disproportionate ticketing of black bicyclists under her watch, a practice that’s been equated to a stop-and-frisk tactic that targeted the black community?
Her answer might surprise you.
"The citations were a mistake," she told me this week.
Castor, 58, is widely expected to soon announce she wants to run the city once her former boss Bob Buckhorn terms out in 2019. She’s not the only one: City Councilman Harry Cohen, attorney Ed Turanchik and others are already in, with more to come.
Her citation admission refers to a 2015 Tampa Bay Times analysis that found eight out of 10 Tampa bicyclists who got tickets for infractions like riding without a light or with someone on the handlebars were black. That’s 80 percent, if you’re doing the math. The report also noted Tampa Police handed out more bike tickets than Miami, Jacksonville, St. Petersburg and Orlando combined.
Then-Chief Castor defended the practice as pro-active policing meant to make high-crime parts of town safer. But she also said the numbers were "troublesome."
A U.S. Justice Department review requested by her and the mayor agreed the intent was to curb problems in high-crime areas, but said the disproportionate ticketing of black bicyclists was unfair and often perceived as harassment even if that wasn’t intended.
The controversy was a mark on the legacy of a popular police chief often stopped to pose for selfies. When she retired three years ago after 31 years as a cop, she said it was the first time she’d been called racist.
This week, Castor said she has come to understand how the tactic caused tension and distrust in the very neighborhoods police were trying to help. Again, she said the ticketing was done with good intentions .
"But the negative consequences were completely unacceptable," she said. "Given that hindsight, we wouldn’t have used that tactic."
Now there’s an interesting twist to a controversy that will undoubtedly flare up in her campaign, or campaign-to-be.
Another big question Castor’s sure to get: Does a career cop have the policy chops to deal with dull and wonky mayoral issues like budgets and bond ratings? In fact, being mayor was once a crazy concept to Castor herself. Back when rumors first surfaced that she might run, she deadpanned that the drug problem in this town must be worse than she thought.
She’s ready for the question: She’s definitely no wonk, but policy chops are also a requirement for police chiefs who draft and implement said policy. Chiefs know city departments and work with the city council, as well.
One last question: What about those who will say she has evolved on biking-while-black only because she’s running for office?
Ask the people if they believe her heart really is in the community, Castor answers. She believes a majority would say yes.
And we’re off to one interesting race.
Sue Carlton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.