TAMPA — One Sunday last month, Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister took the outdoor stage at the River at Tampa Bay church and grabbed a microphone.
Chronister told the congregation his office won’t tolerate human trafficking, exploitation of the elderly or rioting and looting.
“Are we tough on crime? 100 percent,” he said. “People who want to victimize our community, I’ve got a special place for them in the jail. But how about the people suffering from addiction? The people who are suffering from mental health crisis? They’re not bad people, they need help. We’ll get them that help.”
This “smart on crime” approach, Chronister said, has helped bring down crime rates in the county.
The remarks indicate how Chronister, who doesn’t shy from the word “progressive” as his approach to law enforcement, has tailored his message to fend off a Republican primary opponent who calls the sitting sheriff a “Republican In Name Only.”
Charles “Brian” Boswell is a former Sheriff’s Office detective who says Chronister has made too many missteps and is taking the office in the wrong direction. A fervent supporter of President Donald Trump, Boswell contends he’s the only conservative candidate in the race and has adopted “Make HCSO Great Again” as a campaign slogan.
“There needs to be a change, and the county deserves much better than what it has,” said Boswell, 50.
He said a lawsuit he has filed against the Sheriff’s Office wasn’t a motivator in his decision to run. In the suit, Boswell claims officials fabricated internal affairs cases against him, forcing him to retire in 2017.
Chronister says Boswell’s history shows he’s unfit to lead.
“He’s been proven uncredible and untrustworthy,” Chronister said in an interview. “I don’t know what kind of law enforcement leader you can be without credibility and integrity.”
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Chronister, 52, became sheriff in 2017 after Republican predecessor David Gee abruptly announced his retirement. Gee asked then-Gov. Rick Scott to appoint Chronister to the post.
Since then, Chronister has worked to shape the office according to what he calls a proactive, holistic approach to law enforcement. In his view, the more the sprawling office does with its $460 million budget and nearly 4,000 employees to prevent people from committing crimes or re-offending, the safer the county will be.
Since taking office, Chronister has led efforts to reform the county’s criminal justice system, pushing for probation-style programs that allow first-time adult and juvenile offenders to avoid an arrest record if they don’t re-offend and complete court mandates, such as drug or mental health treatment.
By the 2018 general election — the first time Chronister appeared on a ballot — he had endorsements from prominent Republicans and Democrats alike. He handily beat Democrat Gary Pruitt, a former Tampa police corporal, in a county were Democratic voters well outnumber Republicans.
Now running for his first four-year term, Chronister has to win the two-way Aug. 18 primary to move on to the general election. The winner will face a returning Pruitt and no-party candidate Ron McMullen, a former Tampa police commander.
Chronister points to lower crime rates in 2018 and 2019 as an indication that his approach is getting results.
“I think what that shows me is all the preventative programs and the progressive programs I put in place, they’re working,” he said. “It’s not just putting a Band-Aid on the problem.”
He points to moves like expanding the office’s partnership with the Boys and Girls Club, assigning deputies to club sites to build relationships with kids and put them on the right path. He has hired social workers to accompany deputies on calls involving people with mental health issues.
In the jail, Chronister has expanded mental health and addiction treatment care for inmates and created a “veterans resurgence” program that offers a range of services to help U.S military veterans. A new vocational training center at the Falkenburg Road jail gives inmates marketable skills like welding and carpentry.
At the same time, Chronister said, his office is racking up arrests for serious crimes.
As Florida became a hub of human trafficking, Chronister has launched sting-style operations to catch traffickers and would-be customers. The stings have also resulted in arrests on prostitution charges, drawing criticism from activists who say this saddles victims with an arrest record. Chronister says his office is focused on getting counseling and other resources to those who are arrested.
As activists call for reform to address police brutality, Chronister has agreed to turn over investigations into deputy-involved shootings and in-custody deaths to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. A plan to issue body-worn cameras to deputies has been in the works for months.
As he gets attacked by Boswell from the right, Chronister has been sure to tout endorsements from Hillsborough Republicans including state representatives Jackie Toledo, Jamie Grant and Lawrence McClure, as well as Attorney General Ashley Moody.
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Boswell said he was “happily tucked into retirement” when he started getting calls from people concerned about the direction Chronister is taking the Sheriff’s Office. Boswell said they wondered if he’d consider running.
“I developed a reputation as somebody who was willing to stand up against the Sheriff’s Office and refuse to go along with the corruption,” he said. “As a result of that, when all this incompetence started to unfold, people started reaching out.”
Born in Lakeland and raised in Plant City, Boswell joined the Sheriff’s Office in 1991 as a law enforcement deputy and over the next several years worked as a field training officer and a school resource deputy. He worked as a major crimes detective from 2004 to 2015.
As a detective, Boswell said, he helped with investigations that led to the arrest of offenders such as Charles Martinez, who pleaded guilty last year to murdering three people, and James Larkin, a former Tampa Day School principal who pleaded guilty to sexually abusing two adolescent boys.
But what Boswell called a “stellar” career took a turn in 2015, when an internal affairs investigation concluded that he failed to follow orders to audio-record suspect interviews and conduct the interviews with another detective present. The investigation also found that he was disrespectful to an assistant state attorney while presenting a case, records show. He was demoted to deputy and suspended for five days.
Boswell was disciplined again after another internal review concluded he failed to record another suspect interview and have a detective present.
Boswell said he has evidence that shows sheriff’s officials fabricated the investigations to retaliate against him for refusing to lie under oath about an unconstitutional arrest in 2013. He retired in 2017 and the following year filed a federal lawsuit, claiming he was forced into early retirement and cheated out of benefits.
The Sheriff’s Office has called Boswell’s claims “baseless” and the suit “a blatant retaliation.” Chronister said Boswell was fabricating confessions and encouraging other detectives to do the same — allegations Boswell denies. Chronister noted Boswell is on the Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office’s “Brady List” of law enforcement officers who have been the subject of allegations of misconduct.
What happens if Boswell wins in November and his lawsuit is still unresolved? “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it,” Boswell said.
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Boswell said he made up his mind to run for sheriff after two incidents that made news.
One was Chronister’s decision in March to release more than 160 inmates charged with low-level, non-violent offenses to reduce the risk of coronavirus spreading in the population. One of the released inmates was later arrested and charged with murder in a Tampa shooting.
The other incident was Chronister’s decision in March to arrest Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne of the River at Tampa Bay on charges of violating county orders to stop the spread of the virus.
Boswell said both decisions showed poor leadership. He also contends that the Sheriff’s Office’s response to rioting and looting in Tampa’s University area in May showed Chronister was caught off guard by the violence and didn’t plan a proper response.
“This was now an ongoing pattern of somebody who isn’t able to make the right decisions,” Boswell said.
Chronister stands by his decisions.
He said Howard-Browne’s arrest, carried out after repeated warnings, was about enforcing the law, not stifling religious freedom. Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren later dropped the charges, saying that the arrest had the desired effect of stopping Howard-Browne from having services.
“If he would have been a gym owner, he would have faced the same consequences if the encouragement and education didn’t work,” Chronister said. The two remain friends — Howard-Browne passed the mic to Chronister during his recent appearance at the River.
He acknowledged the inmate who was set free had several prior arrests, but nothing that made him ineligible to be released on a low bond. Chronister said he feels horrible the inmate “exploited his opportunity,” but he’s confident the release of inmates helped his jail avoid a coronavirus outbreak.
As for the response to rioting and looting, Chronister said the special incident response and SWAT teams staged at a district office and mobilized a number of deputies to respond when the situation turned violent, preventing more injuries, looting and destruction.
“I feel our response is the reason there weren’t more individuals hurt and more businesses looted and burned down,” he said.
Boswell also disagrees with toward adult and juvenile citation programs.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea to decriminalize a criminal law offense and that’s what they’re doing,” he said. “I think there has to be accountability when you violate the law.”
Chronister said it’s counterproductive to arrest first-time non-violent misdemeanor offenders, burdening the criminal justice system, spending taxpayer money and saddling people with criminal records. He said low recidivism rates for the adult and juvenile citation programs show they’re working.
The candidates also disagree on bodyworn cameras.
Chronister previously planned to purchase a system that only records when deputies draw their sidearm or electroshock weapons, but recently won approval from the County Commission to spend more for the full-time system.
Boswell supports the weapon-activated system but said the full-time system is too costly to record hours of “useless footage.” Chronister said the price has come down in recent months and the expense is worthwhile.
“I want to be as transparent as we can, and being transparent is having video footage of what exactly occurred in any incident at any time,” he said.