TAMPA — Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne looked down at his ringing cell phone recently to see who was calling.
It was the cop who had him arrested.
A month earlier, Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister stood in front of a row of news cameras and blasted the pastor’s “reckless disregard” for the safety of his flock in holding two crowded Sunday services at the River at Tampa Bay church. Chronister said he had no choice but to get an arrest warrant for Howard-Browne because he defied public health orders designed to limit the spread of coronavirus.
Within hours, Howard-Browne’s arrest was national news, his mugshot featured prominently with the stories. The pastor called the charges bogus and said Chronister would have to “deal with Jesus" for his decision.
On April 22, Chronister called.
“One thing led to another, we talked and today he came to the house,” Howard-Browne recalled a week later during his nightly show The Great Awakening. “We had a meal together, we spent three hours talking about the county and opening up the county.”
Howard-Browne and his wife Adonica, a pastor and co-founder of the River, posted a photo of themselves with Chronister on their Facebook page. Chronister is in street clothes. All three are smiling.
The bread-breaking between the Pentecostal pastor and the county’s top cop is another development in a complicated relationship.
Chronister said he was practicing “proactive community policing," which involves reaching out to church leaders like the Howard-Brownes to talk about how to safely reopen the county and keep the coronavirus at bay.
“I met with Pastor Howard-Browne to discuss the future, not the past,” the sheriff said in a statement for this story. “We have committed to moving forward together.”
Experts say the visit to a defendant with a pending criminal case also raises ethical and political questions. Chronister, a Republican, faces re-election this year and the decision to arrest the pastor didn’t play well with some in his party.
“It has to create distrust by the public in the law enforcement process,” said Darryl Paulson, emeritus professor of government at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. “Has the sheriff reached out to other arrested individuals while a case is still active? Are there different standards for the clergy than for other professions? Is Chronister kissing up and playing nice because he is up for election in November and faces opponents within and outside of his party?”
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On a mostly sunny day in January, Chronister arrived at the River’s Tampa campus as the guest of honor for what the church called its “Sheriff Appreciation Day.”
As congregation members noshed on barbecue and checked out Sheriff’s Office displays — a helicopter, an armored SWAT vehicle — Chronister made the rounds with Howard-Browne, shaking hands and giving out hugs. He later accepted an award from the church.
The Sheriff’s Office and the River posted photos from the Jan. 12 event on their Facebook pages.
“It was great having Sheriff Chad Chronister with us today for Sheriff Appreciation Day!” the church’s post reads. “We love you and your team and we appreciate everything you do for Hillsborough County!”
At that point, the novel coronavirus was making few headlines and “social distancing” was still several weeks away from becoming a household phrase. But as concerns about the virus grew, state and local governments began to take action.
By March, as other places imposed stay-at-home orders, Howard-Browne was using his sermons and shows to spread conspiracy theories about the virus, claiming it was part of a globalist plot to kill people with vaccines and shut down the church. He said the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to assemble and he would close his church “when the rapture is taking place.”
On March 29, Howard-Browne held two crowded Sunday services despite warnings from the Sheriff’s Office that doing so violated county orders limiting gatherings to 10 people and requiring residents to stay home except for essential tasks.
Chronister and Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren held a news conference the next day to announce the arrest warrant. Deputies picked up Howard-Browne at his Hernando County home and booked him into jail on misdemeanor charges of unlawful assembly and violating quarantine orders during a public health emergency. He was freed about 40 minutes later after posting $500 bail.
During The Great Awakening show the following evening, Howard-Browne announced he was temporarily canceling in-person services at the River because of a “tyrannical government” and concern for his congregation’s safety. He said he likes Chronister, feels sorry for him and forgives him, but it’s now on his record that he “shut down the body of Christ."
“2020 is a big year for him, he wants to get re-elected, and obviously he caved like a deck of cards,” Howard-Browne said. "People came after him and he caved.
“I’m not mad at him," the pastor said. "I’m very disappointed because I thought a whole lot of him.”
The arrest did anger some in the Republican party, though. Howard-Browne has supporters and parishioners in the party, including some local GOP officials.
Sam Rashid, an outspoken east Hillsborough conservative, told the Times recently that he advised Chronister to shore up his base because some of his actions, including Howard-Browne’s arrest, have eroded his support.
Hillsborough GOP Chairman Jim Waurishuk declined to comment for this story.
Along with displeasure from some party members, Chronister has also drawn at least one Republican challenger — a former detective with the office who has also criticized him for the pastor’s arrest.
Howard-Browne declined through one of his attorneys to be interviewed. Attorney Mat Staver with the conservative Liberty Counsel said they plan to file a motion to dismiss the criminal case.
During his April 29 show, Howard-Browne didn’t go into much detail about the meeting with Chronister. He said they didn’t talk about “what went wrong," and that he still considers Chronister a friend.
“He was between a rock and a hard place," the pastor said as a coffee mug bearing his jail mugshot sat next to him on the desk. “I don’t agree with everything that happened, and he would probably have to do it again and I would get arrested again because I stood up for the Constitution.”
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In response to an interview request from the Times, Chronister sent a statement and answers to follow-up questions. He said the Howard-Brownes “are dedicated to moving forward and ensuring the safety of our important religious institutions and the entire community.”
“We are grateful to have the pastor’s support and prayers as we go forward," he said.
Churches can now meet under Florida’s updated restrictions, but Chronister noted that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends against large gatherings without social distancing.
Warren’s office declined to comment on Howard-Browne’s case but did address Chronister’s visit in a statement to the Times.
“Our office is aware that the sheriff has been talking with the pastor to ensure his continued compliance with the law, and we applaud the Sheriff’s efforts to promote responsible social distancing throughout the county,” the statement said.
Using non-coercive means to maintain order and safety in the community is a laudable goal for law enforcement, said Kenneth Nunn, a professor of criminal law and procedure at the University of Florida. But Chronister’s visit also could give the appearance he’s not impartial, Nunn said.
"That gives me cause for concern, that there’s some degree of special treatment being dished out that would run contrary to the ethical position the sheriff should be taking,” Nunn said. “It boils down to whether you would treat other people the same way and whether that appearance would suggest there’s some degree of favoritism.”
There could be political calculations and ramifications at play, said Paulson, the USF professor emeritus.
“I think it’s politically unwise for him to have contact with somebody he arrested,” Paulson said. “It’s going to raise suspicions it’s politically motivated in an election year.”
Chronister said it would be foolish to try to control “what those with only political motives say about me or my team.”
“All I can do is try to do the right thing for the safety and health of this community,” he said. “I believe it was important to get people to practice social distancing and limit group gatherings. I did that. I believe it is important to work together to safely reopen this community. I am doing that.”
Howard-Browne hasn’t announced when the River would hold its first service at the church but during the April 29 show the pastor said Chronister would be on the sanctuary platform with him when they do.
Chronister confirmed he plans to attend.
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