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Retired Tampa police major gunning to unseat Hillsborough sheriff

Ron McMullen says his nearly 30 years in law enforcement have prepared him for the job.

TAMPA — After nearly three decades at the Tampa Police Department, Ron McMullen had the kind of resume that made him a credible candidate for police chief.

Starting as a rookie patrol officer in 1989, McMullen rose through the department’s ranks and garnered a promotion to major in 2016. He applied for police chief the following year but Mayor Bob Buckhorn gave the job to then-acting Chief Brian Dugan.

Now, two years after retiring from the department, McMullen is asking voters to pick him for another local top law enforcement job — Hillsborough County sheriff.

Running as a no-party candidate, McMullen is one of two challengers seeking to unseat Republican Sheriff Chad Chronister in the Nov. 3 general election. The other is Democrat Gary Pruitt, a former Tampa police corporal who made an unsuccessful bid to unseat Chronister in 2018.

“My entire career has prepared me to be sheriff,” said McMullen, 56.

McMullen’s decision to challenge Chronister pits him against a fellow law enforcement officer he knows well. McMullen said he supported Chronister in 2018, but was spurred to run in part by what he called the the incumbent sheriff’s errors.

“He’s not consistent," McMullen said. "He’s not leading, not moving forward. It’s like moving backwards.”

• • •

Born in Cocoa Beach, McMullen spent his early childhood in Europe while his father served in the U.S. Air Force. His mother was a homemaker.

The middle of three siblings, McMullen was about 13 when the family moved to the Brandon area. He graduated from Brandon High School and played football at Brown University. He left Brown before graduating, took some classes at the University of Tampa and was driving an armored truck for Brink’s when he applied to the Tampa Police Department. He started as a patrol officer in 1989.

“I loved it from day one,” he said.

Tampa Police Chief Bennie Holder walks the streets of College Hill in July 1998 with then-Cpl. Ron McMullen.
Tampa Police Chief Bennie Holder walks the streets of College Hill in July 1998 with then-Cpl. Ron McMullen. [ Tampa Bay Times ]

He spent several years in the narcotics bureau and was tapped to be a detective in 1995.

The following year, McMullen fatally shot a Rottweiler that attacked him at home where he was about to serve a search warrant, according to his internal affairs file. The shooting was deemed by the department a justified use of deadly force. It was the one time in his career that he fired his service weapon.

McMullen went on to serve as a corporal in the department’s firehouse unit and then patrol sergeant. He was promoted to lieutenant in 2006, a post he held for eight years.

Supervisors in evaluations noted his squad’s efforts to reduce crime in East Tampa and his work to open and oversee RICH House locations in Sulphur Springs and Robles Park. An acronym for “Resources in Community Hope,” the RICH House was designed to be a safe haven for neighborhood kids to go after school and during the summer.

In 2009, McMullen had a son with a friend who also wanted to have children. They share custody of Roman, now 11, who lives with his mother in Hillsborough. McMullen, who never married, lives in FishHawk Ranch.

After a promotion to captain in 2014, McMullen was assigned to launch a bodyworn camera pilot program and help the University of South Florida conduct a study on the effects of the cameras. The results of the study suggested officers who wear body cameras are less likely to use force than their counterparts who do not wear them.

Nearly all of the officers were initially skeptical about wearing a camera, but they came around when they saw how the footage could back up their account of what happened on a call, McMullen recalled.

Then-Capt. Ron McMullen speaks during a press conference Tuesday on the shooting death of Sharon Watkins. Also pictured is Watkins' daughter Showanda Darns, back left, and Erika Williams.
Then-Capt. Ron McMullen speaks during a press conference Tuesday on the shooting death of Sharon Watkins. Also pictured is Watkins' daughter Showanda Darns, back left, and Erika Williams. [ Tampa Bay Times ]

McMullen continued his education while on the job, earning a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from St. Leo University in 2012 and a master’s in criminal science from Florida State University in 2017.

Then-Chief Eric Ward promoted him to major in spring 2016. In that role, McMullen commanded the Special Operations Division and oversaw a wide range of units and squads such as the SWAT team and the bomb, canine, air service, marine and traffic homicide squads.

“I liked the fact that I got a taste of everything," he said.

Eli Vazquez, an assistant chief at the time, said McMullen performed well in a “high-liability” job tasked with overseeing parts of the department with big budgets and specialized needs.

“You can’t put just anybody there to lead that division and I think he did a fantastic job,” Vazquez said. “He was well respected.”

In a 2017 evaluation, then-Assistant Chief Brian Dugan gave McMullen an overall excellent rating.

That summer, when Ward abruptly retired to take a private sector job, then-Mayor Bob Buckhorn named Dugan as interim chief. McMullen was among some 60 applicants for the permanent position. In November, as the department hunted for a suspect in the Seminole Heights murders, Buckhorn tapped Dugan for the chief job. McMullen retired the following April.

“He tried to be chief, I tried to be chief. It was just clear it was time to go,” McMullen said. "I would have been loyal to him but I would understand him not feeling comfortable with me there.”

Dugan declined to comment for this story and said he doesn’t make endorsements in political races.

• • •

McMullen planned to run as a Democrat, which would have pitted him against Pruitt in the primary and, if he won, given him a potential edge in a county where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans. But he switched his party affiliation in January, about seven months after the deadline set in state law.

As of mid-September, McMullen had raised about $55,000 in campaign contributions, a fraction of Chronister’s roughly $1.5 million, campaign finance records show.

During a recent Tampa Tiger Bay Club virtual candidate forum where he appeared with Chronister, an audience member asked McMullen about his party switching and support for President Donald Trump. McMullen said he was raised in a family of “conservative Democrats,” registered as a Democrat at 18 and switched to the Republican party about 25 years ago. Hillsborough County records show he officially changed his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican in 2002.

“My values are the same, whether it’s R or D or NPA," McMullen said during the forum. "As far as supporting the president, whoever the president of the United States of America is, that’s who I will support.”

Ron McMullen speaks at a candidate meet-and-greet in Apollo Beach on Thursday.
Ron McMullen speaks at a candidate meet-and-greet in Apollo Beach on Thursday. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

During the forum, McMullen accused Chronister of failing to vet the 164 inmates he released from the jail in March to reduce the risk of coronavirus spreading in the jail. The inmates had been charged with low-level, non-violent offenses, but one of them was arrested and charged with murder shortly after his release.

McMullen also said Chronister could have done more to avoid arresting Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne of the River at Tampa Bay on charges of violating county orders to limit the spread of the virus.

Releasing inmates and arresting a pastor is "just a juxtaposition I don’t understand,” McMullen said.

Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister said McMullen's criticism of Chronister and the office shows he is misguided and misinformed.
Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister said McMullen's criticism of Chronister and the office shows he is misguided and misinformed. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Chronister stood by both decisions as necessary to help reduce the spread of the deadly virus. He said the inmate accused of murder after his release was freed because he was eligible for release on a low bail and there was no way to know he would commit a murder. Chronister said he had to get an arrest warrant for Howard-Browne after the lastor ignored warnings not to hold in-person services.

“When you’re the sheriff, you have to enforce the law and protect the community," Chronister told McMullen.

McMullen said he would have led a more aggressive response to the civil unrest in May, when rioters hurled objects at deputies stations at and near University Mall.

“I would have gone in there and I would have met force with force and I would have arrested everyone there,” he said. “You don’t appease people who are throwing bricks at you, throwing sticks at you.”

Chronister said he deployed the office’s civil unrest and SWAT teams and called all available deputies to the scene as the crowd became more violent, which he said prevented much worse damage that night.

McMullen told the Times has heard complaints from patrol deputies about a lack of manpower, so he would do more to address a deputy shortage at the office.

McMullen also contends the Sheriff’s Office can do a better job of building relationships and partnerships in the community and be more innovative in efforts keep juveniles out of trouble or prevent them from re-offending.

In an interview, Chronister the office has made “great strides” in reducing a patrol deputy shortage down to about 70 vacant positions, and the added manpower has allowed him to create a mid-day patrol shift to ease workloads on deputies and reduce response times. He said enhancing community connections, such as expanding a partnership with the Boys and Girls Club and funding public safety work study programs at two local high schools, has been one of his main goals and helped lower the crime rate. He also noted his efforts to expand the county’s juvenile diversion program.

“I wish McMullen would take the time to learn about the Sheriff’s Office before he makes erroneous claims,” Chronister said.

McMullen backs reform measures that his former department and the Sheriff’s Office already have put in place or vowed to implement since protesters have taken to the streets this summer. He also supports Chronister’s decision to issue bodyworn cameras to deputies and require them to record nearly all the time. But McMullen opposes the demand by some activists to shift money away from law enforcement budgets.

“You can’t burn down the barn to save the farm,” he said. “Taking funds is just going to cause more harm than good, especially in the more economically-depressed neighborhoods.”