New Tampa police chief wants stronger ties to residents

TAMPA

Jane Castor doesn't believe cops should spend their days cooped up in patrol cars with the air conditioning running, peering out at their communities from windows and rear-view mirrors.

So the new Tampa police chief spent one of her first official days on the job as she has most of her 25-year career: She visited people.

"I've never thought of myself as having the gift of gab," she said during a brief pause in her 12-hour workday Monday, "but I guess it kind of runs in the Castor family."

Every day is different for Castor, 49, but some things are staples.

She rises before sunrise at her Seminole Heights home, climbs on an exercise bike for 30 minutes, feeds the fish, dog and two sons, then drives the boys to school. She hikes up 10 flights of stairs to her office. She lifts weights for an hour in the Tampa Police Department gym.

And she makes the rounds in places where they know her simply as "Jane."

On Monday, it was a Starbucks in Seminole Heights, where she met neighborhood leaders who knew her as a major before her promotion to assistant chief in 2005.

There was a University of South Florida criminology class, where she gave a guest lecture to 350 students who welcomed her with applause, listened to her talk, then asked a slew of questions.

"The officer's most valuable weapon," she told them, "is their ability to talk to people."

There was a cramped community center in Sulphur Springs, where in one room kids asked to get their pictures with her and, in the next, eight adults sat in a circle to discuss with her how to improve police relationships within their own neighborhood.

"We've got just under a thousand police officers," Castor told the group. "So, if we can get people to call in and be the eyes and ears, it's just that much easier on us."

Resident Tonya Thomas, 40, sat beside Castor and nodded: "TPD is not your enemy."

That Castor, a Tampa native and lifelong resident, has risen through the ranks to become one of the area's best recognized leaders — and now chief — isn't much of a surprise to those who have seen her in action over the years.

"We knew," said Christie Hess, a Neighborhood Watch coordinator for Old Seminole Heights.

At a lean 6-feet, Castor has long been the quick-witted standout in a crisp blue uniform, with a gun strapped to her hip and a bottle of water in her hand.

If things go as she hopes, she will spend the next five years leading the department to continued crime rate reduction that started under her predecessor, Steve Hogue.

It can't happen, she says, without deeper and more extensive networking with civilians.

On Monday, as she sat down for a brief chat with a handful of newly promoted lieutenants and captains, she reminded them of the challenge.

"We have a simple mission of reducing crimes and improving the quality of life through a cooperative partnership with the community," she said. "We live and breathe it here. It's up to you guys to come up with new ways to go about reducing the crime."

Castor's appointment has garnered a lot of attention, in part because she is the first woman to be named the city's chief.

And while she navigates the 10th floor as one of two uniformed officers in the highest reaches of the department, she says she doesn't know exactly why there aren't more women in the profession.

Ask her about her own success and she talks about her strong family, numerous mentors, her sense of humor and competitive spirit that always spurred her to work hard.

She thinks her athletic experiences in high school and college helped. Her ability to communicate and her curiosity probably made her a good fit for the work.

"Now, I realize there are probably people in the Tampa Police Department and out in the community who feel that women don't have a place in law enforcement," she said, thinking aloud. "But I think those are very few and I think those people are disappearing daily."

As the sun went down Monday, Castor returned to Seminole Heights.

About two years ago, the police started holding curbside roll calls in the community as another way to help residents get to know the officers who patrol their streets.

The idea, Castor said, came from John Bennett, the former District 2 major who was just promoted to replace Castor as assistant chief. (Here, of course, he's known simply as "John.")

So, under the branches of the live oaks as neighbors gathered to munch popcorn and chat, a squad of officers lined up in Christie Hess' front yard for a briefing from their lieutenant.

Two dozen civilians listened as Lt. Jill Kwiatkowski rattled off updates about recent robberies and possible threats.

As the officers were dismissed, Castor told them to be safe, said her goodbyes, then headed toward her unmarked car.

As she parted, a neighbor stuck out his hand and offered his congratulations.

"You're going to be in my thoughts and prayers," he said.

Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at rcatalanello@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3383.

New Tampa police chief wants stronger ties to residents 10/07/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 7, 2009 2:18am]

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