TAMPA — Calling it a "battlefield promotion," Mayor Bob Buckhorn on Tuesday took the "interim" from Police Chief Brian Dugan’s title.
Buckhorn called the 50-year-old department veteran and asked him a simple question.
"I said, ‘Are you ready to be the chief of police, because I’m ready to offer you the job.’ I told him he had performed superbly over the last four months and I’m comfortable with my choice, so let’s take this department to the next level."
The surprise move stopped cold a nationwide search that Buckhorn had started after Chief Eric Ward retired in July. But the mayor said Dugan’s performance during Hurricane Irma and more recently in the search for a suspect in three killings in Seminole Heights has shown the process isn’t necessary.
"I was with him almost every day through the hurricane," Buckhorn said. "I saw the preparation, saw the execution, saw how the troops reacted to him and was impressed. And then the homicides in Southeast Seminole Heights — that is where he sealed the deal for me. He did everything right, the rank-and-file respect him and the community feels the same way. I heard that from the comments from people in Seminole Heights."
The decision marks an unexpected pinnacle in Dugan’s 27--year-career with the department. A year ago, the married father of two teenagers was home recovering from prostate cancer surgery and contemplating retirement. Then his health rebounded, and he returned to work after a roughly three-month leave.
Now, the Seminole Heights killings — three shooting deaths over 11 days in October that police call random but related — have drawn national attention, thrusting Dugan into the spotlight as the face of a department grappling with one of its biggest-ever cases. He said he hasn’t been thinking about the search for a new chief and was surprised when Buckhorn offered the job to him Tuesday.
"What I’ve tried to do is just focus on the task at hand and really try to block all of that out," he said. "I didn’t want it to become a distraction, but I’m extremely grateful for his decision and I’m grateful for the street cops and my family and friends."
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.
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.
Then-Chief Jane Castor later created two deputy 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 when he was Ward’s assistant chief.
In choosing Ward for chief, Buckhorn said he wouldn’t do an outside search unless he thought the "culture was broken" in the department. But after Ward retired, Buckhorn said he expected the department could attract some of the best talent in the country and he had an obligation to at least survey the field. The city hired the Police Executive Research Forum to conduct the search.
Buckhorn said the city had already "slowed the search process down" so the department and city could focus on the Seminole Heights investigation.
"We called PERF today and said, ‘Thank you, but at this point we’re comfortable with who we have,’" he said.
The city had a roughly $40,000 contact with PERF and will pay a prorated sum that will be "significantly" less, Buckhorn said.
The mayor said he talked to people throughout the department and concluded Dugan is a "cop’s cop."
"What do the people who work for you think about you? Are they willing to follow you into battle? Everyone I talked to, from the rookies to the senior folks respected and admired Brian and were looking forward to working for him."
Buckhorn said he has been impressed by Dugan’s efforts to engage with the community. One example, he said: Dugan invited Tampa Bay Lightning forward J.T. Brown to spend the day at the department’s Citizens Police Academy after seeing an image of Brown raising his fist during a pre-game national anthem to raise awareness of police brutality and racial injustice.
"I think that really told me he understood what modern day policing in this environment requires," Buckhorn said.
Dugan has said he doesn’t expect to reinvent the Tampa Police Department. For now, the Seminole Heights murders is the main focus. He’ll be meeting with detectives and his command staff 9 a.m. Wednesday to discuss the case, as they have every day since the killings began.
"We’re just going to keep moving forward," he said.
Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.