TAMPA — Four years ago, when the city of Tampa advertised an open police chief post, scores of applicants from across the country threw in their hats.
High-ranking officials from some of the nation’s largest departments were among the roughly 60 hopefuls who applied. But before the selection process began, then-Mayor Bob Buckhorn decided the best candidate was the department veteran already in the job, Brian Dugan.
Now, with Dugan’s announcement this week that he plans to retire in September, it’s Mayor Jane Castor’s turn. A former Tampa police chief who spent 31 years with the department, Castor has said she will conduct a national search for Dugan’s replacement.
Picking an outsider to lead the department would be unusual for City Hall, where five of the last seven chiefs were promoted from within. Castor announced that Assistant Chief Ruben “Butch” Delgado will serve as acting chief after Dugan retires and until a successor is hired, putting Delgado in a potentially prime position to keep the job like Dugan did.
The search comes at a pivotal time for the department. Activists who took to the streets last summer continue to call for reform and accountability. Residents in neighborhoods racked with gun violence are pleading for more action.
In interviews with city residents, officials and community leaders, some common themes emerged for what they want to see in the next police chief. So did a diversity of opinion about whether the next leader should be promoted or brought in from the outside.
Some said an internal candidate has invaluable knowledge of the city that an outsider would lack. Others said the department needs fresh eyes and ideas to improve fractured relationships, boost transparency and accountability, and quell a surge of shootings.
Officials like Castor have a lot of stakeholders with varying opinions to consider during “a defining moment for policing,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit research and policy organization that started Tampa’s search in 2017.
“You’ve got community concerns, you’ve got police officer concerns,” Wexler said. “At the same time, violent crime is significantly up across the country, so mayors are looking to find that balance.”
Leaders are managing to do that, Wexler said.
“But it’s not easy.”
When Dugan took the helm in 2017, the controversy over the department’s disproportionate ticketing of Black bicyclists was fresh in many minds.
For years, the Tampa Police Department wrote thousands of tickets to Black bicyclists and stopped countless more in the name of fighting crime. A 2015 Tampa Bay Times analysis found eight out of 10 Tampa bicyclists who got tickets for infractions like riding without a light or with someone on the handlebars were Black.
Castor, who led the department from 2009 to 2015, defended the practice as pro-active policing meant to make high-crime parts of town safer. But she also said the numbers were “troublesome.”
The tactic didn’t work, according to a 2016 report by the Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services. Buckhorn and then-Chief Eric Ward agreed to implement the report’s recommendations.
In 2018, on the cusp of launching her bid for mayor, Castor told the Times the citations were “a mistake.” By 2019, citations for Black bicyclists had dropped steeply, Dugan told the City Council in a workshop that year, though police department statistics show that Black bicyclists were still much more likely to be stopped, cited and arrested than their white counterparts.
Dugan said then that the bicycle stops more often happened in areas where police were focused on reducing major crime. Those included predominantly Black areas like east Tampa, according to a map shown at the workshop. It was an ongoing process, Dugan said, and the department was “much more aware of how we police.”
Then came last summer’s national racial reckoning that once again plunged Tampa’s department into controversy.
Protesters took to Tampa streets after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin. Rioting and looting in Tampa’s University area broke out one night in May, but the large majority of protests were peaceful.
Still, police and protesters clashed when demonstrators blocked traffic. Officers used bean bag rounds and pepper spray, which drew scathing criticism from Black Lives Matter, Tampa Dream Defenders and other local groups who saw the tactics as excessive force. The groups also criticized police for not arresting motorists who drove through protests, putting lives at risk. They called for Dugan’s resignation.
It wasn’t just protesters. Seven local and state Black elected officials issued a statement last June calling on Castor and Dugan to end what they characterized as unprovoked use of force by police on peaceful protesters.
Dugan said his officers’ tactics were a necessary response “to defend our city” when protesters become violent. Castor stood behind him, and there is no indication that her support wavered amid criticism of his leadership.
This latest chapter in the department’s history is evidence of the need for a culture change at the department that only an outsider can bring, said the Rev. Russell Meyer, anti-racism educator for Black Lives Matter Tampa. The command structure of the department, Meyer said, “has Mayor Castor’s handprint on it because she was police chief when it was created.”
Meyer said the group wants an outsider who has a proven track record of implementing the recommendations of President Barack Obama’s 21st Century Task Force on Policing to increase transparency and expand community policing, among other goals. Castor formed her own Community Task Force on Policing that used 21st Century Policing tenets as its framework, and she and Dugan pledged to implement them. But Meyer said there is more to do.
He cited the call by activists during Chief Eric Ward’s tenure to document every officer’s encounter with the public. Criminal justice researchers say collecting deeper data on encounters such as traffic stops allows agencies to identify disparities and patterns that go beyond individual complaints about racial profiling, but Tampa police and other local agencies in Tampa Bay haven’t taken that approach.
“There are really two outcomes that we should all want,” Meyer said. “Not just a new police chief, but a new set of relationships in the city that come with the police chief. If we get a new chief but keep the same relationships, then we’re just going to be in the same place that Dugan is leaving. We won’t move forward.”
Insider vs. outsider
Others who spoke to the Times are also convinced it’s time for an outside leader.
State Rep. Dianne “Ms. Dee” Hart, who was raised in east Tampa and still lives there, likened that part of the city to “a war zone.” She said Dugan hasn’t made enough progress to expand community policing, get drug dealers off the streets and tackle the gun violence that sometimes makes her afraid to leave her home.
“I believe we need a fresh set of eyes and ears,” Hart said. “I want to feel safer and in order to do that, we need to have a different approach. I don’t think we can get that with someone who has always been here.”
Hart said a new chief should have the right blend of compassion and creativity.
“Most importantly, I need them to come to this city with the understanding that we have some issues and hopefully have some out-of-the-box thoughts,” she said.
Others, such as City Council member Luis Viera, said they’d prefer to have someone from within the department, or least someone who knows the city well.
“I think it’s very, very important to know the needs of the community, the need for continued community engagement,” Viera said. “Tampa’s the kind of city you can come to and get to know it really quickly, but I think at this time it’s important to have someone who already has those community connections.”
Yvette Lewis, president of the NAACP Hillsborough County Branch, reiterated her past praise of Dugan and the department for being responsive to complaints that come through her office and for working to bridge a divide between police and the Black community. Lewis said her group wants a chief who can continue that progress.
“We’re looking for someone who knows not just Tampa but the communities, the areas, the people,” Lewis said.
Most who spoke to the Times said they’re less concerned about the internal-external debate and more focused on whether the next chief can address their concerns. These views came from camps as diverse as the local police union and the Tampa Dream Defenders.
“We want a new police chief that is committed to meaningful reform — and I emphasize the word meaningful,” David Simanoff, president of the Greater Tampa ACLU chapter said in a statement to the Times. “We want to see significant improvements in areas such as racial profiling and use of force.”
The Tampa Police Benevolent Association, the union that represents nearly 1,000 of the department’s sworn officers, is open to bringing in someone from the outside, association spokesman Danny Alvarez said.
“What the Tampa PBA wants is the best person for the job, whether they are from far away or they come from our own ranks,” Alvarez said.
But, Alvarez added: “We understand there a lot of complexities that go with being the chief of police in Tampa and we think it’s a big advantage for someone who comes from our ranks and understands the Tampa Police Department’s culture, the history of Tampa and the vision of the mayor going forward.”
Bernice Lauredan, a co-founder of Tampa Dream Defenders, said the group is looking at the police chief search with last summer’s ugliest incidents in mind but isn’t determined to push for an outsider.
Lauredan cited the department’s decision to arrest a protester who was struck by car while demonstrating in Hyde Park and not arrest the driver. The charges against the protester were later dropped but he remains traumatized, Lauredan said. Under the right chief, she said, such arrests wouldn’t happen.
“We’d love someone who would support the expansion of alternatives to jail, someone who doesn’t target poor people in the community,” Lauredan said.
The group also wants a chief who will consider calls to give the city’s Citizens Review Board more power and independence. A divided council reached a compromise on the issue last month that the Dream Defenders and others say still gives the mayor too much control.
City Council Chairman Orlando Gudes, who worked under six police chiefs during his 26 years as a Tampa police officer, said he knows Delgado, the assistant chief, well, but the councilman also has at least one outside applicant in mind, so he’s glad Castor is conducting a national search.
“I think he’d probably do a great job, but sometimes competition makes you better in the process,” Gudes said of the soon-to-be acting chief.
There’s another possible scenario: a former Tampa Police Department employee. In 2003, then-Mayor Pam Iorio tapped Stephen Hogue, who’d left the department after 23 years and returned after serving as chief in a department in the Florida Panhandle. Iorio picked Hogue over a deputy Tampa police chief who had applied.
The City Council must confirm the mayor’s selection. Everyone who spoke to the Times agreed that Castor should make sure the community has an active role in the selection process.
Castor’s office requested questions from the Times in lieu of an interview for this story. In her response, she addressed some, but not all, of the questions.
“We will conduct a national search to ensure that TPD continues to not only maintain the excellent community partnerships that have made Tampa a safe city, but will also grow the agency to keep up with the ever changing landscape of law enforcement,” Castor said.
The next chief, she said, “will need to fully understand and embrace the agency mission to ‘reduce crime and improve the quality of life in Tampa, through a cooperative partnership with all citizens.’”
The city will not hire an outside “search agent” like Buckhorn did but “the community and progressive law enforcement experts will play a role in the selection process,” Castor said.
Wexler of the Police Executive Research Forum said city leaders often seek outside candidates when there has been “some kind of turmoil in the department or a recognition that the culture needs to change.” In other cases, soliciting external applicants is an opportunity to see how the best internal candidates stack up against outsiders, Wexler said.
Castor, for her part, heaped praise upon Dugan at his retirement announcement and said she respected what she and the chief said was his decision to step aside now. The mayor said the city would conduct a national search “to look around the nation to ensure we have the next best leader for the best police department in the United States.”
In her response to the Times, Castor said “there are no frontrunners.” The obvious potential internal candidates, however, are typically officials who work below the chief or tapped to do the job on an acting basis.
Dugan, whose salary is $176,550, currently has two assistant chiefs, Delgado and Lee Bercaw.
Delgado, 47, is a 23-year veteran of the force. A Tampa native and married father of two, he graduated from Jefferson High School and has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida. He worked his way up to captain and then major in patrol District 1, which includes Tampa’s west side, southern peninsula and Davis Islands. He was instrumental in a 2017 Seminole Heights serial murder investigation that gained international attention, and he took a lead role in planning for Super Bowl LV, according to his department bio.
In 2019, Dugan made Delgado his number two by promoting him to deputy chief for investigations and support. Then, in early 2020, Dugan re-organized his executive staff and created a second assistant chief position. Delgado remained over investigations and support, and Bercaw, a major at the time, was made assistant chief for operations.
Below the two assistant chiefs are six majors who oversee the city’s three patrol districts, support services, investigations and operations.
Bercaw, 49, joined the department in 1996 and has worked in all three patrol districts. His bio on the city’s website says he is known for “his proactive crime reduction initiative” and his management of transportation and security for large-scale events such as the Super Bowl, Republican National Convention, Gasparilla and the College Football National Championship. He has bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of South Florida.
Delgado and Bercaw declined interview requests. Police spokeswoman Jamel Laneè said the assistant chiefs “want to be respectful that Dugan is still chief,” so they referred questions to him.
Dugan declined to comment for this story. He told the Times on the day of his retirement announcement that he would have private conversations with Castor about recommendations for his successor. But he said Delgado is ready for the top job.
“I think a person inside has a huge advantage,” Dugan said. “They know the neighborhoods, they know their way around, they know what some of the challenges are that each neighborhood faces.”