A Super Bowl conversation with Tampa’s police chief: ‘We don’t want to be the mask police’

Chief Brian Dugan talks about plans to police a city during a hometown Super Bowl in the middle of a pandemic.
Tampa police Chief Brian Dugan, seen here at a news conference in November, said his department doesn't want to be "the mask police" but "we will if we have to."
Tampa police Chief Brian Dugan, seen here at a news conference in November, said his department doesn't want to be "the mask police" but "we will if we have to." [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Jan. 30, 2021

TAMPA — Like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Tampa police Chief Brian Dugan finds himself in an unprecedented situation.

Dugan is leading a department tasked with policing its city during the first-ever hometown Super Bowl in the middle of a global pandemic. And Dugan himself is still recovering from his own bout with the coronavirus — he first tested positive on Jan. 10 and again as recently as last Saturday. He returned to the office on Thursday after a negative test.

Along with the standard safety and security concerns that come with such a large event, law enforcement will also be on the lookout for people and businesses who violate coronavirus restrictions.

On top of existing rules for social distancing and wearing masks indoors, Mayor Jane Castor on Thursday issued an order requiring masks to be worn outdoors in most of the city’s popular destinations, including downtown, the Riverwalk, SoHo, the Channel district and Ybor City until Feb. 13. The order is designed to be voluntary, but as a “last resort,” the order states violators can be cited with a civil infraction that carries a penalty of up to a $500 fine.

We asked Dugan about the game plan for enforcing coronavirus restrictions and about other aspects of policing the city during Super Bowl week. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Let’s start with the question on the minds of many ahead of the game: Can a city host a Super Bowl in a still-raging pandemic without creating super spreader events? And what is the police department’s role in that effort?

I certainly think we can do it but it’s going to require everyone to use common sense and use the universal precautions that are out there — hand sanitizer, social distancing and mask wearing. It’s proven that it works. I went almost a year without getting (COVID-19) and I finally did get it, but prior to that I had been around other people who came down with the virus and I never got it, so I’m a firm believer in wearing a mask and practicing social distancing.

The police department’s role is we’re going to be educating and reminding. We don’t want to be the mask police, so to speak. We will if we have to.

There were already rules in place for indoor mask wearing and social distancing, and now the mayor has issued an executive order requiring masks in some outdoor areas of the city. How will TPD be enforcing those?

It’s more about education and reminding. That’s really what it’s going to come down to. It’s going to be about reminding people and trying to encourage them to be good citizens.

What will it look like in terms of officers on the ground in places where the businesses are and where we saw crowds congregating on New Year’s Eve?

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter

We’ll deliver the latest news and information you need to know every morning.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

We’re going to have people spread throughout the hot spot areas. It’s going to be random patrol, some will be on foot, some will be stationary. Obviously with the Super Bowl we’re already going to have a large law enforcement presence. We’re hoping people will just kind of work with us when it comes to the mask compliance.

You can issue civil citations to people who don’t comply with coronavirus-related orders. What’s the directive to your officers in terms of issuing those?

To give a citation will be a last resort.

What kind of situation could you foresee where you would have to take that step?

It’s hard to say. Maybe if there was a large crowd of people and somebody just flat out refused. We’re just going to hope for the best and hope people comply.

Will officers break up large groups?

It just depends on the circumstances. Obviously, it’s only within certain locations, it just depends on what we have going on.

How do you balance the department’s coronavirus-related duties with the typical law enforcement work that comes with an event that will draw thousands of people to the city?

Safety and security comes first, and then mask enforcement would be part of that but it certainly is not the priority. It’s keeping everybody safe from harm’s way, and mask enforcement is keeping them safe from the pandemic. First and foremost are traffic control and crowd control and security.

I think with this being a home game for the Bucs, there’s going to be a renewed interest and a lot more excitement, and that’s going to be a different dynamic for us than if it were just a regular Super Bowl. I can only speculate but now that the Bucs are in the game, a lot more Tampa fans are going to want to be part of the experience.

Are there any estimates for how many people you’re expecting around Ray Jay?

The biggest challenge you have if you’re a fan, there’s limited space around the stadium. There’s really nothing going on at the stadium on the outside. I think people might show up early to see what the experience is like, but then at some point they’re going to want to leave to go watch the game. And if the Bucs win, they may show up afterwards.

In other cities you’ve seen people go kind of crazy and damage things after a big game. Do you have concerns about that?

No, I don’t have any concerns about people getting to the point where they’re damaging property. I have concerns about traffic control, crowd control. A lot of Dale Mabry (Highway) is going to be blocked off. If there’s going to be a celebration of us winning the Super Bowl and Tom Brady being the MVP, where are people going to go to celebrate? We’ll just have to wait and see.

Can you talk about the process for drawing up the game plan for your department and all the law enforcement partners?

It’s been been going on for well over a year. The biggest challenge we’ve had is the unknown of how is the pandemic impacting it. As far as security for the game and the event, that’s still going to be tight. This is an international stage. If something happens at a Super Bowl, it gets coverage, whether it be a wardrobe malfunction to if somebody wanted to act out, if somebody was looking for their 15 minutes of fame, they’re going to get it, and so security is going to be tight to prevent anything like that.

What will be your message to officers working Super Bowl weekend?

The biggest thing we’re going to stress to the officers is to be patient. People are excited it’s the Super Bowl. They’re excited the Bucs are there. There are going to be a variety of events where, quite frankly, people aren’t familiar with where they’re going. People are on edge with the masks — who’s wearing a mask and who isn’t wearing a mask. So we just have to preach that the officers be patient and the citizens be patient.

What about the message to the fans who will be at the game or out watching at bars, restaurants and other gatherings?

First and foremost, they have to use universal precautions: wearing a mask, the hand sanitizer, social distancing. And have a plan as far as where you’re going, where you’re going to park, what road closures might be there, especially around the stadium and other events. The ride sharing programs might not be able to drop you off as close as you would like, so you’d better wear some comfortable shoes. I think that’s the biggest thing, do your research and have a plan and just be patient.

How many of your officers will be working over the Super Bowl weekend and on Sunday in particular?

Just about everybody. It’s all hands on deck. We’ve limited who can be off. The week of the Super Bowl we’ll have close to 70 different agencies here, from federal, state and local partners. Almost every agency in the Bay area is helping in some form.

We have about 1,000 officers... We’ll have small contingents of people still doing their regular work, but we’ll be reassigning a whole lot of people that week. And then hopefully a day or two after the game, we’re having a victory parade whether it be a boat parade or something, so we’ll have to deal with that, too.

You’re still recovering after a bout with the coronavirus that left you pretty sick. Did that experience give you a different perspective?

I kind of shake my head at people anymore who don’t wear a mask. People can say it’s a political virus, they can call it whatever they want, but it’s real. I got pretty sick from it even though I thought I had a mild case, but in hindsight maybe I didn’t. And there’s people dying from it and it’s something that should be taken seriously. I don’t think we should allow it paralyze us, but you’ve got to take some precautions.

Where will you be on Sunday?

I will most likely be at the stadium, but I’m going to be mobile.

Are you going to be able to take in any of the game?

The worst place for a cop to be to watch the game is at the stadium. The problem is, you don’t want to be in the way but you have to be able to respond if something were to happen. I’ll probably be pretty mobile, walking or in a car. It depends on what’s going on.

The good part of the Bucs being in it and in a home game, if they get down at half time we’ll just kidnap (Kansas City Chiefs quarterback) Patrick Mahomes, put him in handcuffs and he’ll just never show up for the second half. We’re going to make sure there’s a home field advantage.

• • •

Tampa Bay Times Super Bowl 55 coverage

BUCS, REMADE: From laughingstock to Super Bowl with one simple change

BRADY IN THE BIG GAME: We rank all nine Tom Brady Super Bowl appearances

HOW THEY STACK UP: Ranking the first four Super Bowls staged in Tampa

FANS IN TAMPA: A first look inside the Super Bowl Experience in Tampa

MORE BUCS PHOTOS: Follow the Tampa Bay Times Bucs coverage on Instagram

BUCS NEWSLETTER: Sign up for the Bucs RedZone newsletter with team reporter Joey Knight:

We’re working hard to bring you the latest Super Bowl news from around the Tampa Bay area. This effort takes resources to gather and update. If you haven’t already subscribed, please consider buying a digital or print subscription.