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‘It turned into a job’: Tampa police Chief Brian Dugan reflects on tumultuous tenure

Dugan, who retires Friday, started the job facing a hurricane and a serial killer. It got more eventful from there.
Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan poses for a photo with Councilman Charlie Miranda and members of his command staff after Miranda presented Dugan with a commendation for his 31 years of service to the department on Sept. 2. Dugan led the department through some of the most eventful and tumultuous years of the department's history and said the last year and a half had become "a grind."
Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan poses for a photo with Councilman Charlie Miranda and members of his command staff after Miranda presented Dugan with a commendation for his 31 years of service to the department on Sept. 2. Dugan led the department through some of the most eventful and tumultuous years of the department's history and said the last year and a half had become "a grind." [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Sep. 8
Updated Sep. 8

TAMPA — On an October day four years ago, Tampa police Chief Brian Dugan arrived at another crime scene in Seminole Heights.

Hours earlier, Anthony Naiboa, 20, had been shot dead while walking to a bus stop, the third victim in 11 days. Dugan’s department had warned residents not to walk alone because the previous two killings appeared to be connected.

Naiboa’s father came up to Dugan, who introduced himself. I know who you are, I saw you on the news, Casimar Naiboa replied. Can you show me where my son was?

“I pointed down to the ground and you could still see the blood-stained sand between the cracks in the sidewalk,” Dugan recalled.

Dugan was still interim chief at that point, just four months on the job. He’d faced his first big test in Hurricane Irma, but that’s the sort of crisis a Florida police chief can expect. Hunting a serial killer was the stuff of Hollywood.

Dugan’s leadership during Irma and the Seminole Heights manhunt convinced then-Mayor Bob Buckhorn to call off a national search and give Dugan the job. Over the next three and a half years, Dugan navigated the department through some of the most eventful and tumultuous years in the city’s recent history.

Related: Should Tampa’s next police chief be an outsider or promoted from within? Opinions vary.

His tenure was marked by a pandemic and a national reckoning on police brutality that sparked the worst night of rioting in decades. Activists critical of the department’s handling of subsequent protests called for Dugan’s firing. Meanwhile, gun violence in some parts of the city surged. Earlier this year, Dugan got a middle-of-the-night call: One of his officers had died in the line of duty.

He retires on Friday at age 54 having garnered high praise and scathing criticism, and he is certain that now is the time to go.

“I’ve always said that for 30 years, I’ve never had a job,” he said, “and in the last year and a half, it turned into a job.”

‘Consumed’ by the hunt for a serial killer

Hurricane Irma blew past the region in early September 2017. Dugan called every cop in the city to work.

“They had to stay in various parts of the city and leave their families,” Dugan said during a recent, wide-ranging interview.

About a month later, on Oct. 9, the first Seminole Heights victim, Benjamin Mitchell, was fatally shot. Monica Hoffa’s body was found two days later. Anthony Naiboa was killed on Oct. 19.

The fourth and last, Ronald Felton, was shot dead on Nov. 14. It was Dugan’s 51st birthday.

As national news outlets came calling, Dugan was tasked with comforting families and reassuring a city on edge. He met with his team each morning as the weeks ticked by, starting the meetings by noting the number of days since the first murder, “to keep everybody focused.”

“For 51 days, I was just consumed with it,” he said.

Tampa police Chief Brian Dugan talks to residents about the fourth Seminole Heights shooting during a community meeting at the Ragan Park Community Center in November 2017.
Tampa police Chief Brian Dugan talks to residents about the fourth Seminole Heights shooting during a community meeting at the Ragan Park Community Center in November 2017. [ JONES, OCTAVIO | Tampa Bay Times ]

At a late-night news conference on Nov. 28, Dugan and Buckhorn announced police would arrest Howell Emanuel Donaldson III, 24, on four counts of first-degree murder. The break in the case came when one of Donaldson’s coworkers at a Tampa McDonald’s got suspicious when he asked her to hold a gun that authorities say is the murder weapon. Donaldson is in jail awaiting trial.

The episode was an unfortunate but effective way for the city get to know Dugan, a former assistant chief who had kept a low profile during a career at the department that began in 1991.

Casimar Naiboa said Dugan visited his family often during the investigation.

“He showed he really cared,” Naiboa said. “My family will always be thankful to him for being behind us and next to us in those moments.”

Buckhorn said he was impressed by how Dugan handled the spotlight and interacted with victims’ families, and how the community and the officers responded to him.

“I walked away from that saying, ‘Okay, this is the guy who can do this,’” Buckhorn recalled. “This is the guy who can transition from me to whoever the next mayor is.”

In the wake of ‘biking while Black’

When Dugan was named chief, he didn’t see the need to reinvent the way the department policed the city.

Two years had passed since controversy erupted over the department’s disproportionate ticketing of Black bicyclists. Buckhorn and then-Chief Eric Ward agreed to implement recommendations from a 2016 report by the Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services. Citations of Black bicyclists dropped.

But tension among the Black community over the issue was still high when Dugan started, said Yvette Lewis, president of the Hillsborough branch of the NAACP. Lewis said Dugan surprised her by reaching out immediately.

“He asked what do we need to do, how do we bridge this gap,” Lewis recalled.

Lewis said Dugan remained accessible throughout his tenure, responding to citizen complaints from her office about interactions with officers. Lewis said the volume of complaints has diminished under Dugan, and the overwhelming majority are resolved.

“The officer accountability rate has gone up with Chief Dugan,” she said. “It’s not like we want it to be, but it’s better.”

After a decisive runoff win in the 2019 mayoral race, former police Chief Jane Castor, who had supervised Dugan as he rose through the ranks, announced she would keep him as chief. After Dugan officially retired that September as a condition of the state’s deferred retirement program, the city rehired him on a two-year contract that would automatically renew each year for up to four years.

“I have never known a chief that has had to handle the situations that Brian Dugan has had to manage, and he has done an incredible job when there is no playbook or point of reference,” Castor said.

Castor said her support for Dugan never wavered as he handled calls for police reform and the associated civil unrest in “an incredibly balanced way.”

Asked for examples of missteps Dugan made, Castor demurred: “I focus on the positive.”

Dugan volunteered one.

“I think maybe at times she wished I wasn’t as outspoken as I could be, and we had discussions about that,” he said. “I’m very passionate, and sometimes that passion makes me speak out.”

A pandemic, protests and calls to ‘Dump Dugan’

In late March of last year, the inevitable happened: A Tampa police officer tested positive for COVID-19. Dozens more were in quarantine.

Scores more would test positive, including Dugan. Meanwhile, law enforcement agencies were getting caught up in the battle over evolving and sometimes contradictory policies on masks and social distancing. Police fielded calls about people not wearing masks or social distancing. The department worked alongside code enforcement to enforce restrictions on businesses after crowds continued to converge in Ybor City and South Tampa.

“It really put us in the middle of a lot of political views,” Dugan recalled. “I think we did the best we could.”

Tampa police Chief Brian Dugan is pictured in a selfie he took on Wednesday,  Jan. 13, three days after testing positive for COVID-19.
Tampa police Chief Brian Dugan is pictured in a selfie he took on Wednesday, Jan. 13, three days after testing positive for COVID-19. [ Courtesy Brian Dugan ]

Dugan tested positive in early January, six days after getting his first of two vaccine doses. He called it a relatively mild case but still felt the virus’s effects. By then, the department had begun to give vaccines to employees who wanted them. Dugan urged people to heed the advice of their doctor, not politicians.

The anger and division sparked by the virus played out in the department, too. Dugan said some cops were angry when the department didn’t have enough masks and some got angry they had to wear them. Some were eager to get the vaccine, some were skeptical and some have remained steadfast anti-vaxxers.

The department is among many local agencies that don’t track vaccination rates. Dugan said the department went “above and beyond” to encourage officers to get vaccinated. Last month, amid a surge in cases fueled by the delta variant, Tampa became the first local city to mandate the vaccine for all employees.

As the coronavirus raged last May, a video of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck went viral.

The murder sparked protests in cities across the country and in Tampa. A night of rioting and looting in Tampa’s University area on May 30 area damaged or destroyed several businesses.

Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan observes while Cpl. Jason Tkach, left, watches approaching protesters on May 30, 2020.
Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan observes while Cpl. Jason Tkach, left, watches approaching protesters on May 30, 2020. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

The level of violence and destruction that night was an outlier — the majority of Tampa protests over the next several months were peaceful. But some ended with violent encounters between police and protestors and led to dozens of arrests. Dugan’s officers used chemical agents and less-lethal rounds to disperse crowds. At least one person has filed a lawsuit claiming he was injured by a less-lethal round.

In early June, seven local and state Black elected officials issued a statement calling on Castor and Dugan to end what they characterized as unprovoked use of force on peaceful protesters. Protestors began to carry signs and chant calls for Castor to “dump Dugan.”

“Under his direction, the police department took actions that infringed on Tampeños’ rights,” said David Simanoff, president of the Greater Tampa Chapter of the ACLU of Florida. “Anyone reviewing the police response to the protests after George Floyd’s murder can see it plainly.”

Dugan’s record is mixed, said the Rev. Russell Meyer, anti-racism educator for Black Lives Matter Tampa.

Dugan communicated with well-known groups like the NAACP about fighting racism in the ranks and holding officers accountable, but many members of groups like Black Lives Matter who took to the streets were younger people of color who aren’t active in the NAACP, said Meyer. The level of force used against them, he said, belied Dugan’s words.

“So there’s a disconnect in him saying we’re addressing this and what was experienced on the street,” Meyer said. “Did his moral authority not actually stretch deep into the rank and file, or was he misrepresenting the game plan?”

Tampa police officers use pepper spray on protesters and make arrests during a march on Dale Mabry Highway on July 4, 2020.
Tampa police officers use pepper spray on protesters and make arrests during a march on Dale Mabry Highway on July 4, 2020. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Dugan, who calls himself a “law-and-order Democrat,” continues to defend his department’s handling of protests, which did not result in any internal investigations or disciplinary action. He denied that peaceful protestors were targeted and said the department often hung back, giving them time and space to express themselves even as they broke the law by blocking streets. Police eventually had to clear roadways and arrest people who refused to disperse or became violent, he said.

“There were so many protests, and there were only a handful where we made arrests,” he said. “At some of them, it got ugly, and sometimes policework is ugly.”

Still, Dugan said Floyd’s death and calls for reform were a “wakeup call” much like the episode over bicycling citations.

“I think we’re more aware of how we’re policing these days, we’re more aware of how we’re treating people,” he said.

Wearing a mask that says "Dump Dugan," community activist Jae Passmore speaks at a news conference outside of Tampa City Hall in July 2020.
Wearing a mask that says "Dump Dugan," community activist Jae Passmore speaks at a news conference outside of Tampa City Hall in July 2020. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Dugan had some tense exchanges with City Council members about the protest and calls to reform the city’s Citizen Review Board, and some hard feelings linger for at least one member. In text messages obtained by the Times last week, Councilman Bill Carlson told Dugan he was “repeatedly disappointed over the last two years.” But Dugan never lost the council’s support.

Councilman Luis Viera, whose district extends from New Tampa to Busch Boulevard, said his constituents have voiced support for police accountability and reform like body cameras and implicit bias training.

“There was always a call for us to do better, but the whole idea that we should fire the police chief was something I did not support and the majority of my constituents did not support,” Viera said.

By then, Dugan said, the crises and controversies had worn on him. People on social media were telling his two kids their father was racist. His wife Diana asked him more than once: Why are you still doing this? He considered stepping down.

“But there was no way I could turn my back on these cops and this community with all the protests and the drama that was going on,” he said.

Body cameras and other reforms

In June of last year, Dugan joined other Hillsborough law enforcement leaders for a news conference to announce reforms they had agreed to enact after meeting with the NAACP and ACLU.

The measures included explicitly banning chokeholds and neck restraints and expanding officer training on de-escalation and crowd control tactics. The leaders also agreed to turn over to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigations when an officer shoots someone or a person dies in custody.

The agreement also called for departments to equip officers with body cameras, but Tampa had already committed to expanding its 60-camera program and issued cameras to some 650 officers last year. Dugan angered some in his ranks when he said that any officer who didn’t want to wear a camera should turn in their badge.

NAACP Hillsborough County Branch President Yvette Lewis speaks during a news conference in Tampa in June 2020 to announce reform measures that local law enforcement leaders had agreed to implement. Tampa police Chief Brian Dugan stands in the background.
NAACP Hillsborough County Branch President Yvette Lewis speaks during a news conference in Tampa in June 2020 to announce reform measures that local law enforcement leaders had agreed to implement. Tampa police Chief Brian Dugan stands in the background. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Some officers saw the cameras as Big Brother and feared being nitpicked, Dugan said. But the cameras have captured key evidence to support the accounts of Dugan’s officers when they have fatally shot people.

Dugan was criticized by some activists for not supporting an effort to give the Citizen Review Board more power to watchdog the department. A divided City Council reached a compromise with Castor on the issue in June.

Dugan backed broader criminal justice reform measures supported by Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren and Public Defender Julianne Holt, such as making juvenile citations mandatory in lieu of arrest for all first-time misdemeanor offenders except in extraordinary circumstances. But he expressed reservations, saying leaders should focus more on programs to prevent crime as opposed to ones “that let people off the hook when they commit crime.”

Dugan also criticized Warren earlier this year for “playing judge and jury” by dropping charges against some people arrested during last summer’s protests.

Warren said he and Dugan had a productive partnership, from investigating the Seminole Heights case to implementing reform.

“We’ve been allies on the big picture, being tough on the criminals that keep us awake at night and taking a problem-solving approach to low-level offenders,” Warren said.

‘Ups and downs’ with the police union

The unprecedented events of the last 18 months provided ample fodder for tension between Dugan and the Tampa Police Benevolent Association, the union that represents nearly 1,000 officers.

Dugan said the biggest area of contention was over officer discipline. He said the union thought he was heavy-handed in some cases, like his recently-overturned decision to fire a popular Black school resource officer who used the n-word multiple times.

The Times sent the PBA a list of questions seeking comment on Dugan’s handling of the pandemic, protests, police reform and officer discipline. The union responded with a five-sentence statement that said the relationship between a union and chief “always has its ups and downs,” and that Dugan was at the helm during “some of the most trying times” in the history of the department.

“We have not always agreed with him, but recognize that he has a difficult job to do and many stakeholders with different interests to balance,” the statement said.

Rick Escobar, a Tampa attorney who has represented Tampa police officers who have been fired, said he thought Dugan lacked the respect of many rank-and-file officers because he “politicized” the department.

“Any time he got an opportunity to parade some case in front of the media, that’s exactly what he would do,” Escobar said.

That’s transparency, Dugan countered.

“I will publicly speak out when an officer does wrong and hold them accountable,” he said, “and that’s alienated some of the cops.”

Gun violence and community policing

A couple of weeks ago, 4-year old Suni Bell was riding in a car in East Tampa when someone in another car opened fire. Suni was shot and killed.

The girl was one of the most recent casualties of gun violence that has plagued some of the city’s neighborhoods for years and has surged in the last 18 months.

State Rep. Dianne “Ms. Dee” Hart, a lifelong resident of East Tampa, said Dugan and his department have not done enough to quell the violence, squash street-level drug deals and beef up community policing.

“When I was growing up, we got to know police and they got to know the community,” Hart said. “Today, that’s not happening.”

Chief Brian Dugan, with officers and community members at his side, talks at a news conference in June about rising gun violence in East Tampa.
Chief Brian Dugan, with officers and community members at his side, talks at a news conference in June about rising gun violence in East Tampa. [ Josh Fiallo ]

Dugan said the department has made progress over the years to get cops out of their cars and talking to people. He said the biggest challenge facing police today is “finding a balance between keeping community’s safe and “over-policing” them.

He said police also need help.

“The community has to start stepping up and pointing out the people that are committing these crimes.”

An officer lost

Early one morning in March, Dugan’s ringing phone rousted him. It was the sort of call a Tampa police chief had not received for more than a decade.

Officer Jesse Madsen, 45, had been killed in a wrong-way crash on Interstate 275. Evidence indicated Madsen veered into the other car’s path to save civilians. Dugan paced at the scene as firefighters pulled Madsen’s body out of the wreckage, then sat for a while with Madsen in the back of an ambulance. He then headed to Madsen’s house to meet his wife Danyelle and the couple’s children.

Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan consoles the wife and children of Officer Jesse Madsen after Madsen's name was added to the fallen officers monument in March.
Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan consoles the wife and children of Officer Jesse Madsen after Madsen's name was added to the fallen officers monument in March. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Dugan said the loss took more wind out of his sails. He talked to Castor about retiring, then made the announcement in July.

“I would never want to dishonor Jesse and say that’s why I quit,” he said, “but it was part of the decision.”

Dugan was heartened by the outpouring of support for Madsen’s family — a sign, he thought, that the city respects its police officers. He said his interactions with many of his officers and city residents showed he had “a tremendous amount of support.”

Castor has said she will do a national search for Dugan’s replacement and tapped one of Dugan’s assistant chiefs, Ruben “Butch” Delgado, to serve as interim chief while the search is underway. Dugan, who has been preparing Delgado for the job, said he is ready and has widespread support in the department.

“I’m really trying to let Butch prove himself and let the mayor make that decision,” Dugan said.

Dugan said he intends to keep working but doesn’t have a job lined up. He’s going to reconnect with family and friends, get back to his hobby of cooking and baking, maybe pick up golf again.

Last week, the chief appeared before City Council one last time.

“I have dealt with many police chiefs and you rank up there with the best of them,” Council member Charlie Miranda said. He handed Dugan a framed commendation.

Viera told Dugan he could be proud of his tenure during a difficult era. The other four council members present echoed his comments.

Dugan thanked the council but said he didn’t deserve the praise. The men and women of his department do.

Times staff writer Kavitha Surana contributed to this report.