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‘The officers feel like they can’t win’: Tampa chief responds to police criticism

“The police, we always have everybody’s back and nobody has our back,” said Tampa police Chief Brian Dugan at a press conference.

TAMPA — At a brief press conference Monday, Tampa police Chief Brian Dugan painted a picture of a beleaguered police force, worn down by weeks of protests and media scrutiny.

“The police, we always have everybody’s back and nobody has our back,” he said. “Right now the officers feel like they can’t win. And I would have to agree with them.”

He said demonstrations against police brutality that have blocked traffic and sometimes led to tense stand-offs have created a dilemma for police. Officers have kept their distance from recent protests in an effort to diffuse tension, but Dugan said that wasn’t sustainable.

“Police are in a very tough spot — if we show up to people who are just merely exercising their First Amendment rights, it turns into a clash and police are the bad guys,” he said. “But we also now have people who are complaining about the lack of a police presence at these protests.”

He highlighted two recent incidents unrelated to the protests where officers were injured: On Saturday night, officers responded to calls of shots fired at 15th Street N and 26th Avenue N, only to encounter a crowd of hundreds who threw bottles at officers and jumped on a police vehicle. One officer was struck on the left side of his face and went to the hospital with a laceration. No shooting victim was found and Dugan described it as an “ambush” at a block party.

Another officer was injured early Monday morning while trying to take a robbery suspect into custody at a 7-11 on Nebraska Avenue. The man struck the officer several times in the face and tried to take his gun before backup arrived, Dugan said.

Dugan also commented on a recent felony traffic stop over a stolen vehicle that has stirred controversy. The subject of the stop, Joneshia Wilkerson, 23, posted a cell phone video of the incident to Instagram, saying the officer acted inappropriately. The video received more than 45,000 views and police eventually released extended body-cam footage to show the entire interaction, saying it countered Wilkerson’s narrative.

Related: Videos from drive body cam show two views of Tampa cop pulling his gun

“How would you like to be a police officer that arrests somebody, that could end up spurring more riots in the city just by doing your job?” he said. “Whether you are right or wrong, it doesn’t matter right now. No one is listening and any justified action is getting twisted.”

He called some protesters “hypocrites” for protesting police brutality, because officers would show up to help them if they ever needed to call 911.

“I want the good people who support the police to start stepping up,” he said. “If you are sitting in traffic and it’s being blocked, you need to step up and complain.”

Emadi Okwuosa, a 22-year-old activist who has been involved in the Tampa Black Lives Matter protests since the beginning, said efforts to organize peaceful street marches will continue because the protester’s demands to defund the police are not being taken seriously.

Related: Are Tampa Bay police targeting protest leaders?

“People are inconvenienced and I apologize for that inconvenience, but we are protesting for a reason,” he said. “We have tried doing the civil approach many, many times, and it’s been ignored — we need to force the people of Tampa to apply pressure.”