TAMPA — As she marked her first year in office, local leaders praised Tampa Mayor Jane Castor’s quick, firm response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Many cited her law enforcement background as the ideal preparation for keeping the residents of the city safe. A Tampa Bay Partnership poll in early May showed her with a 52 percent approval rating in handling the crisis, higher than any local, state or federal official.
A month later, those same three decades in law enforcement in the bay area’s largest city — culminating with nearly six years as police chief — now are seen by some as a hindrance.
Castor has marched with those protesting the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. And she has held news conferences and been active on social media, making clear her abhorrence at the police conduct that led to Floyd’s death.
Still, she was booed and jeered when she tried to speak with protesters outside City Hall recently.
The president of the Tampa branch of the NAACP says that might be because Castor is seen as siding with police over protesters, especially in the black community.
“The mayor needs to be the mayor and realize that she’s not the chief of police anymore,” Yvette Lewis said, adding she hears that sentiment constantly among the city’s African-Americans. “If I had a dollar every time I heard that, I could get my mortgage paid off.”
Seven current black elected officials issued a statement Thursday, calling for an immediate end to what they characterized as heavy-handed use-of-force tactics by Tampa Police. The statement said Castor needed to act with more transparency and accountability with regards to police behavior.
That same day, City Council member Orlando Gudes, who signed the statement, criticized the administration for not keeping council members in the loop about the city’s response to the protests, including the request for National Guard troops. Gudes said he was made to look foolish when he fielded questions regarding developments he hadn’t heard about from Castor or her aides.
Former State Rep. Ed Narain also told City Council members Thursday that he was disappointed in the city’s handling of the protests.
Narain said he liked the mayor and knows her heart, saying “she wants to be with the people.” But he takes issue with what he says is a lack of communication and transparency surrounding the protests, which have devolved into violence and police use of force several times since the end of May.
“When you message to the community, you need to make it clear that people have the right to protest. Telling people to go home when they’re angry is not the solution,” Narain said later Thursday. “That’s what happened at the press conference yesterday.”
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Castor’s office sent a statement after being asked three times for an interview.
“We understand that people are angry and grieving and need a focal point to channel that anger. I hear them and I’m listening and I’ll continue to listen and when they’re ready to talk I’ll be here as I always have been,” read a text sent by her spokeswoman, Ashley Bauman.
In Castor’s landslide victory last year, the mayor lost seven out of 103 precincts. All seven precincts were in predominantly African-American parts of the city. And, although she apologized repeatedly for a controversial policy that disproportionately ticketed black bicyclists, which came to be dubbed “biking while black” after a 2015 Tampa Bay Times investigation, the mayor bristled recently when asked about its lingering effects on her standing in the black community, saying the perception was “erroneous” and perpetrated by a small vocal group.
"My entire career of public service has been defined by my outreach to the neighborhoods and to the citizens and working on the ground to make our community better for every single citizen in Tampa. So that’s something that I have continued. It hasn’t been increased or decreased,” she told the Times in late April.
Earlier last week, Castor was a guest on National Public Radio’s On Point, a show which enthusiastically celebrated Castor’s election last year as the first lesbian to lead a major city in the Southeast. This time, host Meghna Chakrabarti and guests, former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and Marshall Project journalist Jamiles Lartey, had tougher questions about police response to the protests.
Castor defended her officers and police in general, taking issue with a previous comment that many officers join the force to be exercise power over others.
“One of the issues that law enforcement officers accept is that when something happens, like the murder of George Floyd, that every single police officer in the nation is blamed for that. And it is unfair, but it’s something that is accepted. I know of no police officer that condones police brutality. And, you know, they don’t, the individuals that take the oath, (take it) to be the bully or to be the thug on the corner,” Castor said.
She also weighed in on the discussion on whether police officers should take “warrior” training.
“The vast majority of what an officer does every single day is social work. And that is the guardian portion of it. But there’s also the expectation and the need from time to time for that, or your portion of it, when individuals are pointing guns, those types of things," Castor said. She added that her officers are trained in deescalation tactics, and the police department has been cultivating ties with community leaders for many years.
Asked to respond to Castor’s comments, Lartey suggested that Castor speak with some of her “young black constituents.”
City Council Chairman Guido Maniscalco said he thinks the mayor is in a very tough position.
“I don’t know if there is a right answer,” he said. He praised the mayor for marching with protesters early on and trying to communicate with them.
Mentioning Tuesday’s City Hall protest, where people shouted down Castor when she tried to speak, Maniscalco said he walked the streets in casual clothes later that day with protesters, never identifying himself, just to listen and learn.
“It wasn’t for her to speak. It was for her to listen to everyone else speak,” Maniscalco of the City Hall protest.