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In picking Tampa’s police chief, mayor has much to weigh

Mayor Jane Castor is expected to announce her decision soon on who will be the city’s next top cop. Opinions in the community vary.
 
The three finalists for Tampa police chief are, from left, current interim Police Chief Ruben “Butch” Delgado, Miami Police Department Assistant Chief Cherise Gause, and former Tampa police Assistant Chief Mary O’Connor. Mayor Jane Castor is expected to announce her decision soon.
The three finalists for Tampa police chief are, from left, current interim Police Chief Ruben “Butch” Delgado, Miami Police Department Assistant Chief Cherise Gause, and former Tampa police Assistant Chief Mary O’Connor. Mayor Jane Castor is expected to announce her decision soon. [ City of Tampa ]
Published Feb. 2, 2022|Updated Feb. 2, 2022

TAMPA — When Tampa Mayor Jane Castor announced her three finalists for police chief, two names were very familiar to many in the police department.

Interim Chief Ruben “Butch” Delgado, a 24-year veteran of the department, has been doing the job at Castor’s request since Chief Brian Dugan retired in September. Mary O’Connor is a former assistant chief in the department who retired in 2016.

Castor, who is expected to announce her decision as early as this week, could also opt for a fresh perspective offered by the third finalist, Cherise Gause, an assistant chief for the Miami Police Department.

Related: Tampa names 3 finalists for police chief, introduces them at community forum

O’Connor seems to have as much of an inside track as Delgado, if not more so. She worked closely within the department with Castor, a former Tampa chief, and with John Bennett, himself a former Tampa police assistant chief who is now Castor’s chief of staff.

But O’Connor’s deep history with the department began with an episode that nearly ended what turned out to be an otherwise blemish-free, 22-year career. In 1995, she was fired after getting arrested during a traffic stop on multiple charges, including battery of a law enforcement officer. She wound up getting her job back and rose through the ranks.

Meantime, two powerful constituencies have come out in support of Delgado. The Tampa Police Benevolent Association and Yvette Lewis, president of the Hillsborough branch of the NAACP, told the Tampa Bay Times they want Castor to pick the person who’s already doing the job.

An arrest and a second chance

Mary O’Connor was a first-year officer when she and the man she would later marry were stopped on Nebraska Avenue one morning in May 1995. Their ensuing arrests would make headlines in local media outlets.

A Hillsborough deputy said he saw an Isuzu Rodeo weaving and striking medians. Tampa police Officer Keith M. O’Connor, 28 at the time, was at the wheel and riding with him was the officer then known as Mary E. Minter, 24.

Minter repeatedly disrupted deputies who were trying to give Keith O’Connor a sobriety test, and she was asked to sit in a patrol car to calm down, according to published reports and personnel records. Minter kicked the windows and struck a deputy on the shoulder and chest with her fist.

Deputies arrested Keith O’Connor on a drunken-driving charge and Minter on charges of battery on a law enforcement officer, obstruction and disorderly intoxication. She pleaded no contest to misdemeanor charges of battery and obstruction. A judge withheld adjudication and ordered her to write a letter of apology.

Both officers were suspended without pay, then fired a month after their arrests when they were each found in violation of department regulations. Both were later reinstated. As part of a deal between the city and the union, Mary O’Connor rejoined the department as a probationary officer in February 1996 without receiving back pay, personnel records show.

Keith O’Connor was also reinstated and also ascended to the rank of assistant chief before retiring in 2019.

In 2003, the Tampa Bay Times reported that four officers met with then-Mayor Pam Iorio to voice concerns that certain officers who either had disciplinary problems or had been charged with crimes had been promoted by then-Chief Bennie Holder. Mary O’Connor was one of the promoted officers mentioned, according to the story.

Holder at the time said that the officers had learned from their mistakes and that their evaluations and commendations showed they were good officers.

In an interview Wednesday, Mary O’Connor said she was a “success story.”

“I took a dark spot in my life and I turned it into a positive, and I owe a tremendous amount of gratitude to those that believed in me over the years,” she said.

O’Connor said the episode also “put a perspective on not ever judging anyone based on an unfortunate situation they were in, including sitting in the back of a patrol car.”

O’Connor’s personnel file after her reinstatement is filled with positive evaluations through the rank of captain, the most recent evaluation included.

Since her retirement, she has worked as a consultant and trainer. She is a senior adviser with CNA, a law enforcement think tank, and helps departments develop plans to reduce crime by focusing on community engagement and evidence-based policing. She said that experience has broadened her perspective and makes her a good candidate for the chief job.

Castor “was well aware that (O’Connor) made a mistake when she was young and learned and grew from experience as she rose through the ranks,” said the mayor’s spokesperson, Adam Smith.

Miami Police Department Assistant Chief Cherise Gause, left, and Mary O'Connor, a former assistant chief of operations for the Tampa Police Department, speak during a community forum at the Hillsborough Community College Ybor Campus on Jan. 26. Not pictured is the third of three finalists, interim Tampa police Chief Ruben "Butch" Delgado, who did not attend because of a family emergency.
Miami Police Department Assistant Chief Cherise Gause, left, and Mary O'Connor, a former assistant chief of operations for the Tampa Police Department, speak during a community forum at the Hillsborough Community College Ybor Campus on Jan. 26. Not pictured is the third of three finalists, interim Tampa police Chief Ruben "Butch" Delgado, who did not attend because of a family emergency. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Picking O’Connor over other candidates who have the same or more experience but without a similar blemish on their record could be problematic for the department, said Brian Higgins, a former police chief for Bergen County, N.J., who is now an adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

The choice could send the wrong message to officers and would-be officers at a time when the public is calling for police accountability, Higgins said. O’Connor’s credibility and ability to mete out discipline could also be compromised.

“When she signs off on discipline for somebody who probably rightfully should be terminated, the first thing they’re going to do is go to an attorney and say, ‘Wait a minute, I want the same standard as the police chief,’ ” Higgins said. “I really think it not only impacts her ability in a negative way to lead, I think it’s really going to impact the city in a negative way.”

Asked about her ability to discipline officers, O’Connor said: “I think to accurately judge the discipline of a police officer or anybody in any scenario, all factors have to be considered.”

In an interview Wednesday, Holder said he didn’t think the episode would impact O’Connor’s ability to lead. He noted chiefs must abide by collective bargaining agreements and civil service rules when disciplining officers.

“You can always have people complain no matter what, but I think she’s proven she’s a person of good character,” Holder said.

Delgado has a couple of minor car crashes on his record. A Times request to the Miami Police Department to review Gause’s personnel file was pending Wednesday.

In a statement, the Tampa police union called each of the candidates qualified and capable of leading the department but said it supports Delgado.

“We have vetted him through years of calls and incidents, we have shared successes with him and he has helped guide us through tragedy,” the union said. “We have never forgotten that about him and it is what guides our hopes that he takes the helm as our new chief.”

Asked about O’Connor’s arrest and reinstatement, the union said: “We have high hopes and expectations that should she be picked to be the next Chief, she will use her previous experience in this situation as a guide-rule when dealing with discipline involving our officers and second chances.”

NAACP president: Stick with Delgado

Yvette Lewis, president of the Hillsborough branch of the NAACP, said she has developed a comfort level with Delgado and prefers the city sticks with him.

Lewis said she has received calls voicing concern about O’Connor being in a senior leadership position at a time when the department was disproportionally citing Black bicyclists. Delgado had ascended to captain by that point, and he was an assistant chief when the department was getting criticized for its handling of protests after the murder of George Floyd.

As interim chief, after the NAACP and others called for the city to scrap a controversial Crime-Free Housing program, he announced in December the city would replace the program.

“He was willing to listen, he was willing to have the candid conversations, and he was willing to make changes,” Lewis said.

Then-Tampa police Capt. Ruben "Butch" Delgado, center, and then-police Chief Jane Castor, right, attend an event at the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg in 2014. Also pictured is then-Maj. Mike Baumaister, who is no longer with the department.
Then-Tampa police Capt. Ruben "Butch" Delgado, center, and then-police Chief Jane Castor, right, attend an event at the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg in 2014. Also pictured is then-Maj. Mike Baumaister, who is no longer with the department. [ Times ]

Gause joined the Miami Police Department in 1994 and has worked as a patrol sergeant and a lieutenant over field operations and criminal investigations, according to her resume. In 2019, she was tapped for an assistant chief position. In that role, she helps oversee a $276 million budget and roughly 1,750 employees.

“I am motivated and passionate about policing, and changing its culture,” Gause wrote in her cover letter.

Gause is the only finalist who merits support because, as the outside candidate, she would be the “interrupter to the system” the department needs, said the Rev. Russell Meyer, anti-racism educator for Black Lives Matter Tampa.

“We just think there are too many compromised relationships in the existing system,” Meyer said, “and having a current officer or even a recently retired officer still means there are just too many affections at play for everyone in the community to feel satisfied with the pick.”