TAMPA — Brian Dugan never expected to be here, mingling with Spiderman, Batman and Wonder Woman.
A year earlier, he lay in a hospital bed recovering from cancer surgery and considering retirement after 27 years with the Tampa Police Department. Now, as the department’s interim chief, he had come to Southeast Seminole Heights with a phalanx of police officers to help save Halloween for a neighborhood scared of the dark.
A string of three killings in the area has drawn international news coverage and thrust the 50-year-old veteran lawman into the spotlight. He has vowed to catch the killer, pleaded with residents to come forward with information that could help solve the case, and urged them to fight the urge to stay inside.
"It’s funny how life can throw you curveballs and how things can change," Dugan said as he walked alongside trick-or-treaters under a clear twilight sky. "This has made me wonder if this was the reason I went through the whole prostate cancer thing, to prepare me mentally for this task here."
The killings come as the city seeks a replacement for Chief Eric Ward, who abruptly retired this summer for a private-sector job. Dugan is vying for the position, and the murder investigation — one of the most widely reported in the agency’s history — has given him an unwelcome but unmistakable opportunity to prove himself.
Current and former coworkers say Dugan is a "cop’s cop" whose experience in every corner of the department will serve him well as he faces the biggest test of his career.
"As unfortunate as the current situation is, there’s no better learning scenario than what he’s going through," said retired police Chief Jane Castor, who supervised Dugan as he rose through the ranks and eventually made him one of her deputy chiefs. Still, she said, it’s "on-the-job training you wouldn’t wish on anyone."
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By the time trick-or-treaters hit the streets last year, Dugan figured whatever chance he had to get the chief’s job had come and gone.
In August 2016, when he was serving as assistant chief under Ward, Dugan was diagnosed with prostate cancer. There were complications, and at one point he went into septic shock. He had surgery last October.
All told, he spent 11 days in the hospital, six of them in the intensive care unit. He missed about three months of work and thought the episode spelled the end of his career, but his health rebounded.
In July, Ward announced that he was leaving. Dugan said he was shocked by the news and by the subsequent call from Buckhorn notifying him he would serve as interim chief while the city conducted a national search.
"If you told me 365 days ago that I would be sitting here talking to you as interim chief of police, I would tell you you were crazy," Dugan said in an August meeting with Tampa Bay Times reporters and editorial board members.
He never intended to make his career in Tampa.
Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Dugan graduated with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from West Liberty State College in West Virginia and moved to Tampa days before starting the police academy. He had planned to work for the Drug Enforcement Administration, but that fell through when then-President George H.W. Bush froze government hiring.
Dugan started with the Tampa Police Department in 1990, patrolling downtown on the day shift then switching to the midnight shift within a year. Over the next two decades he steadily worked his way through the ranks.
"He’s always been a performer and we recognized him early in his career as someone who had a bright future at the department," said former Chief Steve Hogue, who led the agency from 2003 to 2009.
As a sergeant Dugan ran the street crimes unit, working in plain clothes to nab drug dealers and prostitutes. As a major, he oversaw the Criminal Investigation Division, where detectives worked to solve homicides and violent crimes.
Former Mayor Pam Iorio got to know Dugan when she was first elected in 2003 and he oversaw her security detail.
"He’s kind of a protege following in the style of Chief Castor and Chief Hogue," Iorio said. "The emphasis is on accountability at every level, being proactive to reduce crime and getting ideas from officers who are on the streets doing the work."
Castor, who served as chief from 2009 to 2015, said Dugan’s leadership skills were on display before and during the 2012 Republican National Convention, when he oversaw the training of a security force of some 5,000 officers from the Tampa Police Department and outside agencies. The department was later praised for an approach to demonstrators that emphasized communication and diplomacy rather than military-style tactics.
"We took our day-to-day policing philosophy into the RNC, that you treat everyone with dignity and respect," Castor said. "He was instrumental in instilling that in the officers."
Castor later created two assistant chief positions for Dugan and Ward. Dugan oversaw Special Operations, Criminal Investigations and the Special Support Division and took primary responsibility for the department’s budget, now at about $155 million. He kept the same duties as Ward’s assistant chief.
Iorio and Castor said Dugan’s gruffness belies an easygoing nature and ability to engage with people.
"He’s no king of small talk, by any stretch," Iorio said. "But if you want to talk to him about something that’s important to you or that he wants to talk about, then he has plenty to say, and he listens."
Dugan has been described as a "cop’s cop," one of the highest compliments a police officer can receive, Castor said.
"That means that although you have obtained a leadership position you haven’t forgotten where you come from, and you’re a good police officer," Castor said. "That’s important to other officers."
Dugan’s former supervisors have watched him closely since he stepped up to a lectern at the police station last month and announced that the shooting deaths of three people in Southeast Seminole Heights — Anthony Naiboa, 20; Benjamin Edward Mitchell, 22; and Monica Caridad Hoffa, 32 — are connected and may be the work of a single killer.
"He’s been thrown into as serious a thing as I’ve seen a chief have to deal with, and I’ve been extremely impressed," Hogue said. "You can see over the course of this how he’s grown in his confidence and his leadership."
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A week before Halloween, Dugan stood in front of about three dozen officers assembled for roll call in Southeast Seminole Heights’ Giddens Park.
Squinting under a bright sun, Dugan began and ended his brief talk by thanking the officers. He acknowledged the burden the case and subsequent long shifts had placed on them and their families.
"I can’t go anywhere without someone thanking me for the hard work that you guys are doing," he said. "It’s not me, it’s you guys doing the work, and I very much appreciate that."
That message is appreciated by the rank and file in the department, said Abe Carmack, president of the Tampa Police Benevolent Association.
An officer with the department for nearly 10 years, Carmack worked with Dugan during the RNC and more recently in Carmack’s role as a union representative. He has heard only praise from officers so far.
"What you see is what you get with him," Carmack said. "He’s always concerned about the cops. He’s very approachable and takes advice from all areas. I think he’s doing a really good job and it shows through some of the things he’s done."
Carmack said he was impressed that Dugan came to roll calls when he first took over as acting chief. And he praised the chief for inviting Tampa Bay Lightning forward J.T. Brown to spend the day at the department’s Citizens Police Academy. Dugan extended the invitation after seeing an image that went viral of Brown raising his fist during a pre-game national anthem to raise awareness of police brutality and racial injustice.
Dugan said engaging the community is one of the chief’s most important roles. He started making calls to local leaders as soon as he took over.
Yvette Lewis, president of the Hillsborough chapter of the NAACP, said Dugan called her once and then a second time after she didn’t immediately return his call. Lewis said she came away from their meeting impressed by his message: I want to work with everybody and I’m here to help.
"He’s easy to connect to, he’s easy to have a conversation with, and I feel like if something goes wrong, I could pick up the phone and he would answer," she said.
Lewis said she recently tested that hunch by relaying to Dugan a complaint about an officer’s racially insensitive comment.
"He got on it," Lewis said. "He didn’t cover up for the guy, he didn’t pacify, he didn’t give me justification. He agreed it was insensitive and had a conversation with the officer and made it a teachable moment."
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A couple of years ago, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said he would only do an outside search for chief if he thought the department’s "culture was broken."
Buckhorn says now that his decision to seek outside applicants reflects an obligation to see what kind of top-notch talent the job could attract. The city hired a consultant to conduct the search and is awaiting a package of qualified applicants.
The mayor praised Dugan for doing a "great job" under pressure.
"The department has not missed a beat, particularly given the two significant events we have faced in the last two months," Buckhorn said in a statement to the Times. "In both the preparation and execution during Hurricane Irma as well as the ongoing situation in Southeast Seminole Heights, Chief Dugan has risen to the occasion and performed well."
In the August interview with the Times, Dugan admitted he was disappointed that Buckhorn decided to conduct a national search. He acknowledged his interim status gave him the chance to "audition" for the job.
Now he says he has pushed aside thoughts of his job prospects. He wants the Seminole Heights victims’ families and the rest of the city to know he’s focused on doing the job, not winning it.
"This wasn’t the 15 minutes of fame I was looking for," Dugan said. "Nobody wants this on their resume."
Times photojournalist Octavio Jones and senior news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.