TAMPA — What was once a monthly ritual at City Hall only happened once in the past year — the police officer of the month award.
Recently, council members resumed honoring city workers for outstanding service during council meetings. But the police awards haven’t followed, except for an abbreviated award in December.
That will now change, as the City Council member in charge of the awards said after being contacted by the Tampa Bay Times. The ceremonies will resume within a few weeks.
For years, police officers would line the walls on each side of the council chambers while the police chief would explain why an officer had earned the monthly honor.
Then, with the officer’s family in attendance, a long line of local businesses and non-profit representatives would present gift certificates and other goodies to the officer. Fire fighters would receive the same treatment. All of it was beamed over the city’s local broadcast channels and online.
Once the pandemic hit, council members didn’t meet for weeks. Although they began meeting again in person at the Tampa Convention Center in June, the awards didn’t resume.
Council member Luis Viera pushed for them to resume. He sent a memo to fellow council members in June asking for police officers to be honored. The result was one award given in December to a police officer.
Meanwhile, months of racial justice protests that frequently criticized and clashed with Tampa police had begun. More than 300 officers were felled by the coronavirus. And the additional stress of the festivities surrounding Super Bowl 55 further burdened the department.
It’s all taken a heavy toll, Police Union president Darla Portman said.
“Our law enforcement officers just feel beat down. The morale is just in the toilet. They feel like no one wants them,” Portman said earlier this week.
Portman said she appreciated Viera’s support on the matter.
Portman inquired with Council member Joseph Citro’s office about when the monthly awards would resume, but hadn’t gotten an answer, she said.
When contacted by the Times, Citro said the police haven’t resumed because council chambers can’t safely accommodate the family members and fellow officers that usually attend the awards.
“So that these brave women and men can get the recognition they deserve,” Citro said. “I don’t want to spread COVID.”
However, awards for other city workers have resumed. The honoree and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1464 President Stephen Simon recently received the award in a separate video-connected room from council members while receiving their praise online and on television.
And late last year, firefighters, who were honored four times a year before the pandemic, were feted in a ceremony at the Tampa Convention Center.
Why couldn’t that be done for the police?
“It would not give them the recognition that’s due,” Citro said.
Citro said the suspension of the awards was solely related to the pandemic and had nothing to do with the antipathy for the police expressed by dozens of activists and residents in multiple council meetings over the last few months.
But then things changed. Citro spoke again with Police Chief Brian Dugan Tuesday and they decided awards would resume for police officers soon, hopefully within the next few weeks.
The ceremonies, at least for now, would likely be held at police headquarters to provide ample social distancing space and ventilation, he said.
That was very good news, said Portman.
“I think it’s great. It’ll be such a morale booster,” Portman said. “It’s such a big deal when the officers achieve that award.”
Editor’s Note: The original version of this story omitted a police officer of the month award in December.