TAMPA — When he unexpectedly scuttled a national search and announced that Tampa’s interim police Chief Brian Dugan would keep the job, then-Mayor Bob Buckhorn called it a “battlefield promotion.”
It was November 2017, and the police department was investigating a string of fatal shootings in Seminole Heights. Dugan had taken over as interim chief that July and soon after led the department through Hurricane Irma. In both cases, Buckhorn said, Dugan proved he had what it took to be the city’s top cop.
Fours year later, the battlefield-promoted — and sometimes embattled — chief has decided it’s time for him to step aside. Dugan announced Monday that he will retire effective Sept. 10, ending a 31-year-career with the department.
“I think it’s just time,” Dugan, 54, told the Tampa Bay Times in an interview. “It’s something that I’ve been thinking about for a while now. When is the right time to leave? There’s always something that happens and it just got to the point where I kept trying to find the right time and realized there is no right time. Nobody wants to leave during a crisis.”
Dugan made the announcement at his department’s downtown headquarters, flanked by Mayor Jane Castor and Assistant Chief Ruben “Butch” Delgado.
A former Tampa police chief who promoted Dugan to assistant chief during her tenure as the city’s law enforcement leader, Castor said Dugan has led with courage, compassion and “incredible vision.” She said she respected his decision to leave after an eventful four years.
“I know that he has given his heart and soul to this organization,” Castor said. “There aren’t many police chiefs I know in the Tampa Bay area, and I submit nationwide, that have had to lead through some of the incidents that Chief Dugan has led through.”
Castor said said she will conduct a national search for Dugan’s replacement and Delgado will take over as interim chief on Sept. 11.
“I believe we owe it to our community to look around the nation to ensure we have the next best leader for the best police department in the United States,” Castor said.
Protests, a pandemic and an officer lost
That’s what Buckhorn thought, too, at first.
Dugan, who joined the department in 1990, was one of two assistant chiefs under Eric Ward when Ward announced he would retire in July 2017. In November of that year, when Buckhorn announced he was taking the “interim” off Dugan’s title, three of the four Seminole Heights victims had been killed. The fourth was found dead a week after the announcement.
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A couple of weeks later, Dugan and Buckhorn called a news conference to announce the arrest of Howell Donaldson III in connection to the four shootings. Donaldson is in jail awaiting trial. Buckhorn said Dugan’s performance during Irma was impressive and his handling of the Seminole Heights case “sealed the deal for me.”
Castor decided to keep Dugan in the position when she took office in May 2019. Because he was enrolled in the state’s Deferred Retirement Option Program, or DROP, Dugan needed to retire in October 2019. In September of that year, he signed a two-year contract with the city that would have automatically renewed for another year this September and each year after that, up to a maximum four years.
Dugan has often remarked how eventful his tenure as chief has been.
There were other headline-grabbing crimes, like the case of Shakayla Denson, a mother accused who drowning her 4-year-old daughter in the Hillsborough River, and the 2018 Bayshore Boulevard crash that killed Jessica Reisinger-Raubenolt and her 1-year-old daughter, Lillia.
Saying it was his job to hold his officers accountable, Dugan has taken some widely-reported disciplinary action against some of his own. In 2019, he announced that he had fired three officers after a seven-month investigation that revealed what he described as a pattern of bad behavior that included failure to document detentions and searches and to properly dispose of seized drugs.
On at least three occasions, Dugan found himself defending the actions of officers who shot people in the line of duty. The Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office has found that in two cases, officers who used deadly force during Dugan’s tenure were justified. A review of a third case is pending.
Last year brought the double-barreled tests of a global pandemic and nationwide protests calling for police reform in the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police.
Scores of Tampa police officers would test positive for COVID-19, Dugan among them. He spent several days at home in January battling the virus.
Dugan’s department responded to rioting and looting in the University area on the night of May 31, 2020, but protests in Tampa were largely peaceful. Protestors accused Tampa officers of using excessive force in responding to protests, and some leaders called for Dugan’s resignation. Dugan defended his officers’ actions and Castor stood behind him.
In September, Dugan criticized Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren for opting not to bring charges against some protestors, saying Warren was playing “judge and jury.” Warren maintained that his office had taken a consistent approach in charging decisions, that his prosecutors are not a “rubber stamp” for police and have more time to make measured decisions guided by a higher burden of proof than officers in the field.
Warren praised Dugan in a statement released Monday after the chief announced his retirement.
”Brian Dugan has confidently led TPD through what has been the most challenging time to serve as police chief in a generation,” Warren said. “We have always appreciated his dedication to our community, the strong partnership between our offices, and everything he’s done to help make Tampa the safest city in our state.”
Dugan and Castor have also found themselves at odds with activists and some City Council members who want to give the city’s Citizens Review Board more power and independence from the Mayor’s Office. A divided council reached a compromise last month.
Tampa activist Kelly Benjamin was among those who welcomed the news of Dugan’s retirement.
“Dugan’s departure is long overdue and should have happened immediately after his violent mishandling of the George Floyd protests last summer and his subsequent whiny appearance on Fox and Friends,” Benjamin said, referring to a June 2020 appearance on the conservative network during which Dugan said his officers’ morale was low and “nobody has our back.”
“Let’s hope the mayor engages with community stakeholders to find a candidate who is a far better fit for a community that has been plagued with decades of chronically discriminatory policing practices,” Benjamin said.
Despite the criticism, Dugan said in general his department has made strides in working with the community during challenging times. Dugan cited the expansion of the department’s body camera program as a step for transparency. He has also pointed to policy changes enacted since demonstrations broke out, such as expanding de-escalation and implicit bias training and agreeing to turn over investigations into deadly force incidents to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
“Have we done everything right? Of course not,” he said Monday. “No one ever does. But what we have done is dedicated ourselves to doing things the right way, always improving and always protecting this wonderful community.”
In March, Dugan had to notify the family of Master Police Officer Jesse Madsen that he’d been killed in a wrong-way crash on Interstate 275. Madsen, a 45-year-old married father of three, was the first Tampa officer to die in the line of duty since 2010.
“It’s been a very hard 18 months,” Dugan said Monday.
There were times to celebrate, too, though those occasions also meant more work for Dugan’s department: The Buccaneers won a hometown pandemic Super Bowl this year, and the Lightning won back-to-back Stanley Cup championships.
Dugan said he has learned some “simple truths” during his time as chief. One of them: “No matter the headlines, social media posts or soundbites these police officers are dedicated to doing right by this community, and this community is dedicated to supporting its police department.”
Asked whether he has any preferred internal candidates to succeed him, Dugan said he would offer Castor his thoughts in private.
“I think Chief Delgado is ready but it’s very important that the mayor find the right person,” Dugan said.
A 23-year-veteran of the department, Delgado is a Tampa native who graduated from Jefferson High School and has bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida. Dugan promoted the married father of two to assistant chief in January 2020 to oversee investigations and support operations.
Delgado previously served as captain and then major in patrol District 1, which includes Tampa’s west side, southern peninsula and Davis Islands. He was instrumental in the Seminole Heights investigation and took a lead role in planning for Super Bowl LV, according to the department.
Among other challenges, Dugan’s successor will have to confront a marked increase in gun violence that has plagued the city and prompted Dugan and others to plead for help from the community.
At the news conference Monday, Dugan thanked his wife Diana and their two children, Justin and Ashlyn, for their “unconditional love and support.”
“You cannot operate successfully in this line of work without the understanding and dedication of your family,” he said.
Asked about what’s next for him, Dugan seemed to leave the door open to continuing his career elsewhere. He said he has been “approached by a few people.”
“I’m feeling really good,” he said. “I slept perfect last night which told me I was making the right decision.”
Times Staff Writer Dan Sullivan contributed to this report.