TAMPA — Police Chief Brian Dugan on Wednesday went on the Fox News morning show “Fox & Friends” and vented about an incident in V.M. Ybor this past weekend where he said his officers were “ambushed” by hundreds.
The Tampa police chief discussed the June 20 incident, which he said took place just after 1 a.m. on a Saturday, and said it has lowered his officers’ already depleted morale.
“In this incident, we actually sent nine officers and it was clearly just a setup to get the cops there and surround them,” Dugan said. “This is what we’re dealing with — are these block parties? Are they demonstrations, you know? What are they?”
“Fox & Friends” co-host Steve Doocy then steered the conversation to the month-long Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality and racial injustice and the heightened scrutiny of police conduct nationwide.
“These peaceful protests, these demonstrations can turn on a dime,” Dugan said.
The chief’s appearance on national TV comes after his brief comments to local media Monday where he discussed the weekend incident. He described his police force as beleaguered and exhausted after weeks of protests and intense scrutiny.
“The police, we always have everybody’s back and nobody has our back,” he said Monday. “Right now the officers feel like they can’t win. And I would have to agree with them.”
At that news conference, Dugan said his officers were responding to a call of shots fired at a block party when they were “ambushed.” Instead of finding a man down on the street, as described in the 911 call, he said his nine officers were met by a crowd of hundreds that threw bottles at them and jumped on a police vehicle. One officer was hospitalized with a laceration on his face.
Nearby residents in local Facebook groups, such as V.M. Ybor Neighborhood Group, show that the location where police responded Saturday — at the intersection of N 15th Street and E 26th Avenue — is a spot for weekly block parties that regularly draw hundreds.
“It was clearly a setup,” Dugan told Fox News. “There was no shooting. There was no evidence of a shooting and there was nobody down on the street.”
Dugan said his department “can’t win” no matter how they respond to the protests. While he spoke, Fox News continued to show footage from Saturday’s incident filmed from above by a Tampa police helicopter.
The Tampa Bay Times was told by a police spokesman that one person was taken into custody after the June 20 incident but no shooting victim was found. The Times on Wednesday requested an interview with Dugan about his statements on Fox News. The Times also asked the Tampa Police Department to elaborate on what led the chief to believe the incident was a setup and to produce any arrest reports and audio recordings of the 911 calls in the June 20 incident. The department had not responded to any of the Times requests as of Friday.
Dugan has been outspoken since the protests started in Tampa, and has been especially visible and vocal this week. At Tuesday night’s meeting of the Citizen Review Board, the city’s police oversight board, protesters lined up and called for him to be fired and for his department to be defunded.
He addressed those comments during Wednesday’s “Fox & Friends” segment.
“We’ve had the same calls here where they’re demanding my job,” Dugan said. “They want to abolish the police. We need to be very careful about that. I don’t mean to be overdramatic, but the next time there’s an active shooter at the mall, the next time there’s an act of terrorism or a school shooting, who is going to respond?”
Local protest leaders could not be reached for comment.
In the three weeks since 67 protestors were arrested in the early morning of June 3, protests in Tampa have been mostly peaceful with little visible police presence.
“If we show up and take action, we’re heavy-handed, it’s excessive force,” Dugan said in Wednesday’s TV appearance. “But these peaceful protests, these demonstrations, they turn on a dime and they can turn on the cops very quickly and then it just becomes difficult.”
Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren recently dropped the charges against the 67 protestors. Warren said he declined to prosecute after evidence showed that those arrested were protesting peacefully.
Dugan criticized that decision on national TV.
“Then we have our local prosecutor who is calling demonstrations, (saying that) they’re just exercising their First Amendment rights and these are peaceful demonstrations,” the chief said. “They’re not depicting the whole story. They’re leaving the portions out that fit their narrative.”
Warren on Friday released a statement in response to Dugan’s comments: “We will continue to support peaceful protestors just as we will continue to file charges against those who loot, riot, or attack our officers. In every case, we will make decisions based on the specific facts and applicable law.”
During his appearance, the chief also struck a conciliatory tone, saying law enforcement does need to spend more time listening to the community. It was a tone he repeated later Wednesday when he appeared at a news conference with the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union and other Hillsborough County law enforcement leaders to unveil countywide police reforms.
“That’s what we need to figure out, just how does the community feel about it and what changes do they think need to be made,” Dugan said at the news conference. “I think the problem is law enforcement is driving too many of those conversations, and maybe we need to start listening more so we can get to where we need to be.”