TAMPA — Tampa Mayor Jane Castor has been in office for a little more than a year. She won office in large part by emphasizing her experience as the city’s police chief between 2009 and 2015. Now, some of those protesting George Floyd’s alleged murder at the hands of police and longtime community activists are questioning her commitment to police reform.
The Tampa Bay Times talked to Castor about the national movement toward defunding police departments and her ideas about reform in a 23-minute phone interview Wednesday. The questions and answers have been edited for clarity and length.
You’ve had more than three decades as a police officer and worked as a consultant. Have any ideas formed in your mind over the past couple of weeks about possible changes or reforms?
First and foremost, look at communication and inclusion. For example, that hashtag #8CantWait. (A list of eight strategies to avoid violence and encourage deescalation). I’ve received hundreds of emails about that. And those are policies, procedures, legal bulletins and training that the Tampa Police Department has had in effect, in some cases for decades.
I think there’s unawareness on the community’s part of exactly what the Tampa Police Department does. That ultimately is a failure on our part as city government, you know, not being communicative and as transparent as we possibly could. Our community doesn’t realize that an officer’s actions involve social work. I invite everyone to do a ride along and or attend the Citizens Academy. So you can get a behind the scenes look at how the police department operates.
Does the Tampa Police Department need reform?
Well, that’s a difficult question to answer, because if the community feels that there needs to be change, then that’s something that we have to listen to. I believe it goes back to that communication, when we changed the way that we police in the city of Tampa back in 2003. And really committed to that partnership with all of our residents. You know, there were some that said that, ‘oh, the complaints are going rise as crime reduces,’ and that wasn’t the case. Again, that communication with the citizens to ensure that they understand not only what the police department does, what the expectations are, but that they have trust in the officers that work for the Tampa Police Department.
Are you or the Tampa Police Department being treated unfairly by protesters, activists or the media?
I don’t look at this as an issue of fairness. I know that on everyone’s part, there is a great deal of grief, anger, anxiety, and if that needs to be focused on an individual, then that’s fine. I am here to listen to the community. And, no matter how long that takes, to be able to sit down and have those conversations, I’m here. I’ve been here, you know, since day one.
Should the Tampa Police Department be defunded?
We’re asking the police to do too much. We take funding away from other areas: education, mental health, from workforce development, transportation, all of those issues fall in the lap of our police force. And so officers are asked to to be the mental health experts, they’re asked to be the teachers, they’re asked to be the counselors. And, you know, that’s something that we need to look at.
The Tampa Police Department handles over a million calls a year. And so, there is a need. But we need to look at the balance. And that’s why I’m focusing on those systemic issues that I can make a difference in. And that is in workforce development, housing affordability, transportation, social justice, sustainability and resiliency.
Do you plan on cutting the police department’s budget?
What I can tell you is, through the years, as our population in the city of Tampa, both residential and daily influx, has increased dramatically, our police force has actually reduced the number of officers that we have.
So, no cuts?
No. Not at this time.
There is a national conversation about redirecting municipal resources. In Minneapolis, the City Council has said it will abolish the police department. Should Tampa follow suit?
Well, I think (that’s) more of a knee jerk reaction than sitting down and actually assessing the responsibilities of law enforcement agencies and the need out in the community.
So it’s not something you would you would support?
No. I mean, citizens would certainly not support that. As I said, the Tampa Police Department answers a million calls a year. So ... there’s a need. And if you have no mental health — we’re 51st in the nation in mental health funding — we’re behind Puerto Rico. So that falls to the police officers. So it would be reckless to talk about doing away, just completely abolishing the law enforcement agency here locally.
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Coverage of local and national protests from the Tampa Bay Times
WHAT PROTESTERS WANT: Protesters explain what changes would make them feel like the movement is successful.
WHAT ARE POLICE USING? A guide to non-lethal and less-lethal weapons used in local, national protests.
WHAT ARE ARRESTED PROTESTERS CHARGED WITH? About half the charges filed have included unlawful assembly.
WHY DO POLICE CLASH WITH PROTESTERS? We looked at law enforcement rules. They urge de-escalation but only to a point.
HEADING TO A PROTEST? How to protect eyes from teargas, pepper spray and rubber bullets.
SOME NEW, SOME LONGTIME FAVORITES: Here are 15 black-owned restaurants and food businesses in Tampa Bay