TAMPA — Police Chief Eric Ward unexpectedly announced his retirement Thursday morning, a little more than two years after Mayor Bob Buckhorn named him chief and more than a year before his scheduled retirement.
Ward, 50, told his senior staff and TPD's rank and file he's leaving later this month for a job as director of security with Tampa-based Coca-Cola Beverages Florida, the third largest privately held and fifth largest independent Coca-Cola bottler in the nation.
"It wasn't an easy decision for me to make," Ward said during a news conference at police headquarters. "I've spent 29 years of my life working for this agency, basically all of my adult career."
Buckhorn named Assistant Chief Brian Dugan as interim chief and plans to open a national search to find Ward's successor. That's relatively unusual at City Hall, where four of the last six police chiefs were promoted from within. A fifth spent 23 years at TPD before taking a chief's job in the Florida Panhandle, only to be hired back as chief in Tampa.
"I think Tampa's in a position now that we are attractive to the best candidates around the country for this job," Buckhorn said. "It's a department that's well-run. It's respected. This is not a reflection on talent at TPD, some of whom I expect will compete for this job. We've got an obligation to go out and see what talent is out there."
Buckhorn said he expects to hire the nonprofit Police Executive Research Forum in Washington, D.C., to help advertise the search and screen applicants. He said the search would include bringing candidates to Tampa for "an opportunity to interact with the community."
As chief, Ward commands a department with 969 sworn officers, plus another 262 civilian employees and an annual budget of $155 million. The agency handles more than 506,000 calls for service a year and makes more than 21,000 arrests. Ward's salary is $166,420 annually.
With Ward's retirement, Hillsborough County's top three law enforcement jobs will all turn over in less than a year. First, Andrew Warren unseated longtime Hillsborough State Attorney in last November's general election. Then in May, four-term Sheriff David Gee said he would retire Sept. 30. Now Ward is leaving.
Several City Council members said Ward's retirement caught them by surprise and they were sad to see him go. Frank Reddick said he was "totally stunned" when he got a text from someone at the Police Department that began, "Are you sitting down?"
"A huge loss," council chairwoman Yvonne Yolie Capin said.
"He's always been a great asset to the city," council member Guido Maniscalco said.
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Ward grew up in public housing in Belmont Heights in predominantly black East Tampa. He credits a strict mother and the mentor he found in his high school ROTC instructor with guiding him to the chance to pursue a career in law enforcement.
After graduating from Hillsborough High School in 1984, Ward worked for the Tampa Housing Authority before starting a 29-year career at TPD. He has worked in nearly every part of the agency, including as commander of the bomb squad, the hostage negotiations team and SWAT team. Buckhorn named Ward to succeed Jane Castor as chief in May 2015 and said Thursday he would be "sorely missed."
"This department is a better department because of Chief Ward," Buckhorn said. "He's done a great job. The people in the community love him. The officers respect him and I have thoroughly enjoyed working with him."
Ward, who had been scheduled to retire by Sept. 29, 2018, through the state's Deferred Retirement Option Plan, said he made the decision largely because he has accomplished his goals as chief and because the new job was an opportunity he couldn't pass up.
"I'm leaving the department in excellent shape and in good hands," he said. Dugan, one of three finalists when Buckhorn hired Ward as chief, is a 26-year veteran who, as assistant chief, has overseen criminal investigations, special services and special operations. He previously served as a major in charge of the criminal investigations division, was a captain in charge of special operations, and in 2012 trained officers from other agencies to provide security during the Republican National Convention. He said he plans to apply for the chief's job.
Ward's goals included reducing violent crime, providing relevant training of the officers, and a focus on Tampa's youth.
He created a violent crime bureau focused on a small number of offenders responsible for a large percentage of crime, which represented yet another approach on an established philosophy at TPD. From 2015 to 2016, reports of violent crime fell 16.5 percent citywide, and property crime dropped 6.8 percent. Moreover, officials say, each of the city's three police districts saw decreases in crime.
To enhance community engagement, Ward created a community affairs unit, and the department has hosted a series of community conversations in each of its three districts.
"The responses (to those community conversations) were starting to be positive," said Reddick, who represents East Tampa. "I thought he was on the right track addressing issues, particularly those important to the African-American community."
TPD also has expanded its commitment to the Police Athletic League, where the young Eric Ward stayed busy playing football. And Ward has raised funds for scholarships and supported the after-school and summer programs of the Resources in Community Hope or RICH House program.
Along with supporting training adapted to current events — on profiling, diversity, impartial policing and dealing with the disabled, mentally ill and deaf and hard of hearing — Ward set a different tone at the Police Department.
He arrived as the agency was under scrutiny following a Tampa Bay Times investigation that found that Tampa police issued more bike citations than any other law enforcement agency in Florida, and that eight out of 10 of them went to black cyclists.
Early on as chief, Ward went to roll calls and told officers not to worry about driving up the number of tickets they wrote but to use their discretion in dealing with people they encounter. The number of tickets written has since dropped.
As for the opportunity he couldn't pass up, Ward is going to a minority-owned company formed in 2015 with seven sales and distribution centers in Tampa, Lakeland, Sarasota, Fort Myers, Fort Pierce, Sebring and Spring Hill. It has since expanded to a total of 16 distribution centers from Jacksonville to Big Pine Key, serving a market of more than 18 million consumers.
Richard Danielson can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times