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Tampa chief draws praise for grace under pressure

Tampa police Chief Jane Castor expressed relief that Dontae Morris had been caught before memorial services for slain Officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab on Saturday.

DANIEL WALLACE | Times

Tampa police Chief Jane Castor expressed relief that Dontae Morris had been caught before memorial services for slain Officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab on Saturday.

TAMPA — In front of cameras and colleagues, police Chief Jane Castor's confidence never seemed to waver. Still, when she got the call Friday night that Dontae Morris had been arrested, she didn't believe it right away.

"I must say that I had to have it confirmed," she said, flashing her first smile in a news conference all week.

Nine months into her tenure as Tampa's police chief, the 50-year-old Castor faced four of the toughest days in Tampa law enforcement history. On Saturday, many said she has proven she's the right person for the job.

"She's incredible, isn't she?" said her predecessor, Steve Hogue, who retired in September. "I'm just so proud of her."

Hogue said Castor's trial by fire was more difficult than anything he faced in his six-year tenure as Tampa's chief.

On Tuesday, two officers were shot to death. The suspect remained on the loose for four days. News emerged that connected him to three other homicides.

"There was a lot of pressure on her," said Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee. "Huge pressure."

The manhunt could have ended with more bloodshed, and Castor knew that.

"That will be determined by Morris," she said Thursday.

Each day, she would encourage officers to go home at the end of their 12-hour shifts, but some say she didn't go home until Thursday. At times, she forgot to eat.

As the days dragged on, her fatigue showed, but only slightly. Hillsborough sheriff's Col. Jim Previtera, who's known Castor since 1998, said he could detect it only because he knows her well.

"Obviously, it's taking a toll on her," he said.

She refused to talk about herself, though. Instead, she spent each day pumping up investigators, consoling grieving relatives and co-workers and leading news briefings. Her navy blue uniform was always crisp and her short blond hair neatly brushed.

Not all of her decisions were popular.

Some residents at the epicenter of the search bristled at what they saw as an intrusive police presence.

Others wondered why investigators initially released Cortnee Brantley, who was with Morris when Officers Jeffrey Kocab and David Curtis were shot. Castor asked for the public's trust, saying it was in the best interest of the investigation. On Saturday, she elaborated: She had hoped Brantley would help bring in Morris.

And though that didn't happen, local leaders praised her tactics.

"People want you to lay your cards on the table, but in a police investigation, that's not what you're supposed to do," said County Commissioner Rose Ferlita.

She constantly walked a fine line between steely resolve and compassion for the fallen officers' families, and the public never saw her lose her composure.

She often took the time to honor Kocab and Curtis. She talked to their wives and embraced them at the Roll Call of Honor memorial. In a eulogy at the officers' funerals Saturday, she never mentioned the long week.

"Today we say goodbye to Officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab. ... " she said. "They're gone from us today, but their lives and service will never be forgotten."

Mayor Pam Iorio, who appointed Castor and stood by her side before the cameras, praised her as a great chief and "a great partner."

Castor, who was raised in Tampa, joined the police force in 1984. She knows first-hand how dangerous the job can be.

In 1991, a robber shot at her and Hogue, who was a lieutenant at the time. The bullets missed.

Then in 1995, her good friend and neighbor, police Officer Michael Vigil, was shot twice by a robbery suspect in east Tampa, just blocks from where Morris lived with his family. Vigil survived after enduring several surgeries.

In August, in her role as assistant chief, she led several of the news conferences about Cpl. Michael Roberts, who was shot in the line of duty. She seemed shaken but strong.

Castor has long been involved in local crime prevention. Even as chief, she still shows up for neighborhood meetings in Seminole Heights, an area that saw increased police presence this week as investigators searched for Morris.

Still, Old Seminole Heights safety coordinator Vance Arnett said he was never nervous. He watched the live briefings and felt comforted by Castor's confidence.

"She kept us informed of what was going on, which helped alleviate a lot of fears," he said.

The search for Morris dragged on longer than many previous hunts for police shooting suspects. But on Saturday, with a peaceful resolution in hand and solemn services dominating the day, people focused on praising Castor and her department.

She had promised, unequivocally, every day that Morris would be caught — and she delivered.

"She was everything I expected and more," Hogue said.

Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3433.

Tampa chief draws praise for grace under pressure 07/03/10 [Last modified: Saturday, July 3, 2010 9:34pm]
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