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After 22 years, Tampa assistant police chief retires to a more important role: mom

Mary O’Connor, who was the assistant chief of operations for Tampa police, joined the department in 1994.
Mary O’Connor, who was the assistant chief of operations for Tampa police, joined the department in 1994.
Published May 16, 2016

TAMPA — Ask Mary O'Connor to choose a moment that defined her law enforcement career, and she will give you the exact date: July 6, 2001.

It was the day she gave birth to her first child, a son, Ryan.

It was also the day that Lois Marrero, one of her fellow Tampa police officers, died. O'Connor remembers lying in a hospital bed, seeing the news that an officer had been shot scroll through a TV news ticker.

She had long known Marrero, who became the first woman in Tampa Police Department history to die in the line of duty.

That day, on the precipice between life and death, O'Connor the police officer realized her most important job was to be a mom.

"The realization that life is fragile was made immediately apparent to me," she said. "It was always my plan to put in 20 years … but the plan got put on hold for a while."

The thought stayed with her as she rose through the years to become an assistant chief, the highest-ranking woman in the department's current ranks.

And it's why, after 22 years as a cop, she retired Friday.

• • •

O'Connor, 45, didn't set out to be a cop. No one in her family went into law enforcement. When she found herself at the University of South Florida studying criminology, the goals were always vague — forensics or probation — never the work of a street cop.

She ended up working a job as a civilian administrator with the 14-man police department in Madeira Beach. The local police chief, Archie "Bert" Hatcher, a retired Tampa police major, encouraged her to apply to the police academy there. A big city agency, he told her, offered more opportunities.

She joined the Tampa Police Department in January 1994. Two years later, she went to back up another young officer on a traffic stop.

That was how she met Keith O'Connor. They were married in 1997.

They always worked opposite schedules and on different squads. She was day shift. He was the night shift.

"It worked for us," said Keith O'Connor, 48, who now heads the department's criminal investigations division. "But it was a tough balance."

What helped, O'Connor said, was that they understood what the other was going through: "Police officers see crises all day long and they go home to a spouse who doesn't understand what they've gone through. I'm not so sure your average spouse understands why you have to get out of bed at 3 a.m. or why you have to be on the phone during dinner time."

But the competing demands of work and home life did take a toll. They relied on their respective in-laws to help with their two children.

After the birth of their son Ryan, O'Connor decided she would quit the force after 20 years. It was a commitment she renewed when daughter Natalie was born in 2006.

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O'Connor's biggest regrets, she said, were the times she couldn't be with her children to help them with their homework or care for them when they were sick.

She wanted to put her focus where it mattered most, she said. But first she wanted to finish her 20-year commitment to being a police officer.

"The first thing I had to do," she said, "was get to the finish line."

• • •

Ask O'Connor about her career and she'll share some harrowing stories.

There was the time two of her fellow officers, Kevin Howell and Mike Vigil, were shot by a semi-automatic rifle in 1995. O'Connor, remembers putting pressure on Vigil's gunshot wounds before he was rushed to the hospital. Both officers survived. For that, she and other officers got a "life saving award."

There was the man who robbed a McDonald's near Kennedy and West Shore boulevards, then ran several blocks before trying to carjack two University of Tampa students. O'Connor chased him the whole way. When he saw the officer, he threw down his gun. For that, she received an award for valor.

Ask other cops about O'Connor and they'll talk about her work in District 2, which covers north Tampa neighborhoods like Seminole Heights, Sulphur Springs and the University area.

She was a detective there, focusing on economic crimes. It was a time when some considered fighting crime in District 2 to be a futile effort. But O'Connor was not dissuaded. As an investigator, she assembled massive volumes of files on complicated criminal cases.

Later, as a detective sergeant, she helped organize the district's first weekly crime meetings, gatherings where cops discussed their cases, shared intelligence and looked for links between crimes.

Those meetings have become a weekly staple in all three police districts.

Such efforts were what made the district's neighborhood crime maps change colors, O'Connor said, from all red (high crime) to a patchwork of mostly yellow and white (lower crime). To young officers, she instilled the message that every crime number represents a victim, a person who needs their help.

"She's very good at identifying and developing talent," said Sgt. Larry Brass. "She surrounds herself with very good people, and those people are very loyal to her."

She made a special effort to listen to the concerns of female officers, who work in a profession dominated by men.

"I hate to make this a female thing, because it's not," said Lt. Ashley Roberts. "But I think it is really important that we have a strong leader in the department."

• • •

O'Connor's successes brought higher promotions and bigger jobs. Sergeant to lieutenant. Lieutenant to captain. Captain to major. Major to deputy chief. Deputy chief to assistant chief.

The last few were in 2014 and 2015, at the same time Mayor Bob Buckhorn and then-police Chief Jane Castor were forming a succession plan. New Chief Eric Ward and Assistant Chief Brian Dugan rose quickly alongside O'Connor.

For the past year, as assistant chief of operations, she has overseen patrols in all three police districts. She held the reins while the department grappled with controversies such as racial disparities in its bicycle citations and a surge in violent crime last year.

But she was always drawn back to her roots in district crime meetings. That's where she can watch young cops follow in her footsteps: talking about the latest crimes, sharing surveillance videos and tracking repeat offenders.

"There is a generation of police officers out there who are savvy about what the new generation needs," she said. "You get to a point that you see it's kind of a young person's game now."

Contact Dan Sullivan at dsullivan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.

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