TAMPA — Since Tampa police arrested nearly 70 protesters during a late-night demonstration against police brutality in early June, Chief Brian Dugan has been in the hot seat.
Protesters have papered downtown with stickers calling for him to be removed. They made the same demands to his face last week at a police oversight board meeting. Two days later, they repeated their demand at a City Council meeting.
For his part, Dugan has urged residents to stand up for police officers and told a national television audience that if people want to make police the enemy, they should be sure to befriend criminals.
At a June 23 Citizen Review Board meeting, Dugan said he was willing to talk to protesters once they calmed down. He was largely shouted down when he tried to speak, but was harshly criticized by audience members for looking at his cell phone and not engaging with them at other times during the meeting. After Dugan left, a board member said he thought the chief’s behavior was inappropriate.
Castor declined to comment on Dugan’s behavior when asked by a Times reporter on Monday. Later in the week, Castor’s spokeswoman responded to inquiries from the Times about Dugan’s status with a statement: “Mayor Castor has no intention of firing Chief Dugan.”
After then-Mayor Bob Buckhorn appointed him as interim chief in 2017, Dugan’s plainspoken, accessible style garnered praise when he was thrust into the spotlight during the Seminole Heights murders. His handling of that case prompted Buckhorn to scrap a national search and tap Dugan, a 30-year department veteran who worked his way up the ranks.
In September, when Dugan was set to retire, the City Council approved a two year contract to pay him an annual salary of $176,550.
During his June 25 Fox & Friends appearance, Dugan’s responses were, by turns, defiant and conciliatory.
“I assure you that we are not going to take a knee,” Dugan said in the interview. “We are going to stand up, we’re going to defend our city. We’re the guardians of the city, and we have no intentions of handing over the key to the city to these protesters who quite frankly are just not always peaceful.”
But he also acknowledged that his department needed to evaluate how it has policed the city’s communities, and said “in law enforcement, we need to listen.”
Since then, Dugan has remained silent — at least publicly.
The Times submitted more than a dozen questions to the chief about criticism of his department’s response to protests and accusations of excessive force, and protesters’ calls for Castor to fire him and cut the police budget. He was also asked about his relationship with State Attorney Andrew Warren, whom Dugan criticized in the Fox interview, and whether Castor has asked him to speak less in public, among other topics.
“The Chief will pass on commenting,” police spokeswoman Jamel Laneè said in an emailed response.
Warren last month dropped charges against 67 protesters whom Dugan’s officers had arrested in downtown Tampa. Dugan criticized the decision, saying it ignored violent acts against police, looting and vandalism.
“And then we have our local prosecutor, who is calling demonstrations, you know, they’re just exercising their First Amendment right and these are peaceful demonstrations, and they’re not depicting the whole story,” Dugan said on Fox.
In announcing the decision on June 15, Warren said the evidence showed that the people arrested were peacefully protesting and did not commit violence or vandalism. Warren made a distinction between those who were arrested for unlawful assembly and more than 100 others arrested since May 30 and still face prosecution on a range of other charges including battering police, vandalizing property and inciting riots.
Warren said in a statement to the Times that his office’s relationship with Dugan has been “productive.”
“Police and prosecutors won’t always agree on every issue — our system is designed that way, because we have different roles in the justice process,” Warren said. “Our office remains committed to working with local law enforcement to keep our community safe.”
Jae Passmore, a Tampa activist who has emerged as a key figure in protests, said Dugan’s dismissal is a priority. His comments have been a “dog whistle,” for people who are opposed to protesters to commit violence, she said. Passmore was struck by a vehicle during a June 21 protest. Days later, another driver continued to drive through a demonstration resulting in the arrest of a protester who jumped on his car.
“He’s been incendiary. There have been a multitude of issues of him not being the leader he should be for this police department. And we continue to demand his resignation,” Passmore said.
If he stays, the protests will continue, she said, adding that Dugan’s removal would be a “good starting point’ for discussion on police reform.
Yvette Lewis, president of the Hillsborough NAACP branch, has a different take.
“We’ve had some bumps and bruises along the way, but we’ve had some understanding conversations and come to common ground on some things,” Lewis said. “His leadership has been good. The door has been open and the lines of communication have been open between everybody.”
Lewis said Dugan has been responsive when the NAACP has raised concerns about incidents involving his officers.
As for calls for his dismissal? “Be careful what you ask for. We don’t know what we’re going to get,” Lewis said.
The city’s police union is also supportive, praising their chief for standing up for them since protests began over the May 25 death of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than seven minutes.
President Darla Portman said the rank-and-file officers are glad to see him speak out on their behalf in recent weeks, especially during the Fox appearance.
“We were worried in the beginning when all this broke loose that he was going to pander, because he saw everyone else do it,” Portman said. “The troops are very happy with him. They need that boost, to see that the chief has their back.”
Portman said Dugan is in a difficult position, in part because of Castor.
“The mayor’s going out there and painting murals of Black Lives Matter and not going out and talking in support of the police, and the chief is doing the opposite of her,” she said.
Dugan has shown support for reform, including de-escalation and crowd control tactics, community policing techniques and requiring police to exhaust all non-lethal options in volatile situations. Dugan has also vocally advocated for body cameras for his officers and has supported Castor’s call for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate all shootings involving police officers.
City Council member Bill Carlson has criticized the department’s messaging, but stopped short of calling for Dugan’s removal.
“We all need to take responsibility moving forward,” Carlson said, placing the blame for any police dysfunction on Buckhorn, who left office 14 months ago. Buckhorn didn’t respond to a request for comment.
City Council member Luis Viera said he would advise Dugan to be more diplomatic moving forward, but didn’t see any reason for the chief to step down, let alone be fired.
“I haven’t seen the kind of acute disengagement that would justify a call for that,” Viera said.
Orlando Gudes, a retired Tampa police officer and current city council member, called for better training, saying some of the police tactics he’s seen on video didn’t resemble what he had been taught while on the force. He said he’s relayed his concerns to Castor’s chief of staff, John Bennett, a former assistant police chief under Castor, who led the department between 2009 and 2015.
“I do respect Dugan, but I think he’s got to be a little more compassionate. He’s got to get a little more thick skinned,” Gudes said, adding he’d leave Dugan’s future up to Castor.
Charlie Miranda, who has served as a council member on and off since the 1970s, was direct in his assessment. He said he believes there should be some type of police reform, but he hasn’t seen any reason for Dugan to be fired.
“The day he’s fired, I’m leaving,” Miranda said.
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Coverage of local and national protests from the Tampa Bay Times
WHAT PROTESTERS WANT: Protesters explain what changes would make them feel like the movement is successful.
WHAT ARE NON-LETHAL AND LESS-LETHAL WEAPONS? A guide to what’s used in local and national protests.
WHAT ARE ARRESTED PROTESTERS CHARGED WITH? About half the charges filed have included unlawful assembly.
CAN YOU BE FIRED FOR PROTESTING? In Florida, you can. Learn more.
HEADING TO A PROTEST? How to protect eyes from teargas, pepper spray and rubber bullets.