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  1. Florida Politics

Police Chief Brian Dugan gets high marks under one Tampa mayor, but another is coming

Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan markes one year in the job this month. He calls it “the most emotionally challenging job, the loneliest job and the best job you’ve ever had, all wrapped into one.” [OCTAVIO JONES/ Times]
Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan markes one year in the job this month. He calls it “the most emotionally challenging job, the loneliest job and the best job you’ve ever had, all wrapped into one.” [OCTAVIO JONES/ Times]
Published Nov. 26, 2018

TAMPA — It was Halloween night and Tampa police Chief Brian Dugan was back in Southeast Seminole Heights, mingling with a chest-high NASA astronaut, a pair of pint-sized Black Panthers and a blond-haired doughnut.

A lot had changed since Dugan came to join trick-or-treaters in the neighborhood a year earlier. Back then, people were on edge after three seemingly random killings just blocks apart. At that point, he was still the interim police chief hoping to be selected for the permanent job.

When Dugan returned this time to hand out prizes for best costumes, he was about to mark his first full year without "interim" in his title. Howell Donaldson III, the Seminole Heights killer who would ultimately claim a fourth victim, was behind bars awaiting trial.

"It was a totally different experience," Dugan recalled. "Last year was fun, but there was that shadow in the back of your mind, your head constantly on a swivel."

Dugan has changed, too. He described his first year as chief as a "roller coaster ride" marked by heart-wrenching cases and lessons learned about himself, the department he leads and the city it polices.

"When you're the chief of police, everybody looks to you for the answers," he said. "It's probably the most emotionally challenging job, the loneliest job and the best job you've ever had, all wrapped into one."

• • •

Mayor Bob Buckhorn tapped Dugan to serve as interim chief in July 2017 when Eric Ward announced his retirement. Buckhorn had the city start on a national search, but then changed his mind and announced on Nov. 7 that he was giving the job to Dugan.

At the time, Buckhorn said he was impressed by the way the 27-year veteran of the department handled Hurricane Irma and the Seminole Heights case. A year later, the mayor says he never doubted he made the right choice.

"He's lived up to every expectation I've had of him," Buckhorn said. "People like him. They see his heart for policing, for the community, and I think the men and women of the department feel the same way."

In a wide-ranging interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Dugan he has made few changes at the department because little needed changing.

"When I took over, I said we didn't need to reinvent the way we police," Dugan said as he sat behind the desk in his 10th floor office with its sweeping view of downtown. "I'm very big on community policing, I'm very big on us getting out there and working and stopping people and going after criminals, but it has to be done in the right way. I've built on the foundation of previous chiefs and kept it going."

Dugan's predecessor Eric Ward reversed a department "productivity ratio" policy that rewarded officers for writing tickets and punished those who don't. Giving officers discretion in citations has helped boost morale and improve community relations, Dugan said. He said the relationship with the city's African-American community continues to improve in the years since the department ended its practice of stopping and citing bicyclists in predominantly black neighborhoods.

That issue became a flashpoint again during a recent City Council meeting. In a tense exchange, City Council Chairman Frank Reddick, the council's only African-American member, said his black constituents in east Tampa still believe they are being unfairly targeted.

Dugan countered that officers make bike stops in high-crime areas as part of their policing strategy and that disparity in numbers doesn't mean there is a bias.

"When you're accused of racism and you're just out there doing your job, I get a little bit tense," Dugan told the Times. "I don't think either of us has any hard feelings toward each other, but I do have to stand up for my officers at some point."

Reddick, in an interview, generally praised Dugan's performance so far.

"He's trying to build relationships with the black community and the police department, so that's a positive," Reddick said.

But Reddick said he still believes Dugan needs to review the policy on bicycle stops "and make some adjustments so the perception isn't that you're targeting African-American young men."

Yvette Lewis, president of the NAACP's Hillsborough branch, said she believes the citation issue has been resolved. She lauded Dugan as proactive and responsive.

"When we have an issue occur, when a complaint comes into the office, the chief has been very receptive and very good about resolving that complaint," Lewis said.

Dugan said the hardest part of his job is striking a balance between backing up officers and holding them accountable. He said he believes the cops on the street know he's behind them but acknowledged his decisions on disciplinary action and other matters have created tension with the Tampa Police Benevolent Association, the union that represents about 940 active members.

"I listen to everybody, but I own my decisions," he said. "A lot of times, discipline is making a statement to the citizens we serve about what's going to be tolerated and what's not going to be tolerated."

The Police Benevolent Association declined through President Abe Carmack to comment for this story.

• • •

Dugan's first year has been marked by headline-grabbing episodes: A mother and child mowed down on Bayshore Boulevard by teen drivers accused of street racing. A father and two sons run over by a mentally ill man in New Tampa. A mother charged with intentionally drowning her young daughter in the Hillsborough River.

As chief, Dugan was usually in front of the cameras briefing reporters. He has met face to face with family members of at least two people killed by officers in the line of duty.

"Even when it's justified, they're still someone's loved one," he said. "It's the most awkward moment, and I don't expect them to say anything, but it's the right thing to do."

Despite these ordeals, the 52-year-old married father of two teenagers says his outlook has changed for the better since he started the job.

"I tended to focus on the negative parts in life and now I see it from a different view, a different lens, and I think I'm a lot more positive," he said. "I see all the good that our officers are doing, I see all the good in the community that goes on. I took over at probably one of the most challenging times that someone could take over and I'm just amazed at the support I've been given."

Dugan enters his second year clear-eyed about some of the challenges ahead.

One of his top priorities is to find a way to buy more body-worn cameras for the department's uniformed patrol officers. The department purchased 60 cameras in 2015 as part of a pilot program. The cost to purchase 550 cameras for all uniformed patrol officers would run about $1.1 million for the first year and some $700,000 annually after that for data storage, maintenance and other expenses, according to Dugan.

"We're just going to have to try to get creative" to find the money, he said.

Dugan understands why many officers don't like the idea of being recorded and will question why cameras should take priority over other needs such as replacing aging patrol cars and other equipment. Though far from perfect, the cameras will give officers "a much better way of telling their version of the story," he responds.

"I think in order for people to truly trust the police department, body-worn cameras are a thing of the future," Dugan said. "We have a very good relationship with the community, but we're one incident away from that trust being broken. Nobody likes to talk about that, but it's the reality."

A new mayor will take office on May 1, and though the term-limited Buckhorn said he will recommend that his successor stay with Dugan, the chief acknowledges there are no guarantees he'll keep the job.

The politics of the mayoral race could get dicey for Dugan. Among the crowded field of candidates is former police Chief Jane Castor, who supervised Dugan as he rose through the ranks and later made him one of her deputy chiefs. Dugan isn't allowed to make an endorsement but said it might be hard to avoid the political sparring.

"When you have a former chief of police who's running for mayor, there's an opportunity to drag TPD through the mud to get at her," he said, "so it's going to be a hard balance for me to kind of stay above that fray."

Contact Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.