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Tampa mayor’s police chief pick gets pushback from some

Tampa City Council members who must vote to confirm Mary O’Connor say constituents are voicing concern and disappointment.
 
Mary O’Connor speaks at a news conference last week after Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, right, announced that she had selected O'Connor for police chief from among three finalists. Tampa City Council members who must vote to confirm O'Connor say constituents are voicing concern and disappointment about the pick.
Mary O’Connor speaks at a news conference last week after Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, right, announced that she had selected O'Connor for police chief from among three finalists. Tampa City Council members who must vote to confirm O'Connor say constituents are voicing concern and disappointment about the pick. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Feb. 15, 2022|Updated Feb. 15, 2022

TAMPA — Standing before a row of news cameras last week, Mary O’Connor said her first priority as Tampa’s police chief will be to connect with city residents to take a “team approach” to preventing and fighting crime.

But O’Connor has some work to do to win over some skeptics, including some City Council members who must vote to confirm her.

Mayor Jane Castor’s decision to choose O’Connor, a former assistant chief for the department who retired in 2016, out of three finalists has puzzled and disappointed members of some key constituencies.

Members of the city’s Hispanic community wonder why Castor would forgo the chance to pick interim police Chief Ruben “Butch” Delgado, a well-liked product of West Tampa whose appointment would help address a dearth of Hispanic city department heads.

Members of the Black community have concerns that O’Connor was a high-ranking leader in the department when it disproportionately ticketed Black bicyclists, which was revealed by a Tampa Bay Times investigation and drew a U.S. Justice Department review.

And the Tampa Police Benevolent Association, the police union, supported Delgado and said it was disappointed in the pick.

Across those constituencies comes a common refrain: Why pick someone who was arrested as a rookie officer, fired and then reinstated — as O’Connor was in 1995 — over another leader with a clean record and as much, if not more, experience?

At least four of the seven members on the City Council must confirm O’Connor, and a vote could happen as early as Thursday. Some told the Tampa Bay Times that a lot of constituent feedback on Castor’s pick has been negative. At least one council member has said he isn’t sure he can vote yes.

O’Connor said she hopes to change skeptics’ opinions, and she’s ready to get to work with her two assistant chiefs, Delgado and Lee Bercaw.

“I want to move the department forward, and I think myself, Chief Delgado and Chief Bercaw are going to be a great team,” she said.

‘Sense of disappointment’

At last week’s news conference at police headquarters, Castor, a former police chief who worked closely with O’Connor, said O’Connor’s history with the department coupled with her experience working in other cities as a consultant and trainer put her over the top.

As for Delgado, the mayor said she is confident that he will “make a great chief of police one day.”

Tony Morejon, a West Tampa resident and former Hispanic liaison for Hillsborough County government who supported Castor, said he can’t understand why she would pick O’Connor over Delgado, a “West Tampa kid” who has a proven relationship with the community and has been working as a department leader during what Morejon called one of the most difficult periods in law enforcement history.

“To me, it’s a failure to reward someone who’s been doing the job extremely well,” Morejon said.

Evelio “E.J.” Otero, a Tampa Republican and retired U.S. Air Force colonel who also supported Castor’s bid for mayor, said the City Council should reject the pick.

Hispanic residents were already unhappy about the lack of Hispanics in key positions in the city, Otero said.

“It is undeniable that across the Hispanic community, there is a very strong sense of disappointment,” Otero said.

Otero is among those concerned about O’Connor’s arrest as a rookie officer in 1995.

That year, O’Connor was arrested during a traffic stop on charges of battery of a law enforcement officer, obstruction and disorderly intoxication after she struck a deputy in the chest and kicked patrol car windows. She pleaded no contest to misdemeanor charges of battery and obstruction and a judge withheld adjudication. She was fired and later reinstated.

Her personnel file after that is filled with positive evaluations through the rank of captain, the most recent evaluation included. But some interviewed by the Times said that episode damages her credibility and should disqualify her from consideration for the top job or should make Delgado the choice between the two.

“Butch has an impeccable record,” Otero said.

Interim police Chief Ruben “Butch” Delgado, in center, speaks at a news conference last week after Mayor Jane Castor, right, announced that she had selected Mary O'Connor, left, over Delgado and another finalist to serve as police chief.
Interim police Chief Ruben “Butch” Delgado, in center, speaks at a news conference last week after Mayor Jane Castor, right, announced that she had selected Mary O'Connor, left, over Delgado and another finalist to serve as police chief. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Yvette Lewis, president of the Hillsborough branch of the NAACP, said she has “many reservations” about O’Connor and has fielded calls from others who do, too. Lewis noted that O’Connor was a department leader at a time when police were disproportionately stopping and ticketing Black bicyclists.

“That never really got resolved in the heart of the African American community,” she said. “I know the mayor is tired of us bringing it up, but the wound is still there.”

Delgado was a captain at the time, but Lewis said members of the Black community in the last five months were growing comfortable with him and his apparent commitment to be accessible and responsive.

Donna Davis, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Tampa, also cited the bicycle citations in calling O’Connor a “problematic pick.” The group has said the department needs the fresh perspective of an outsider and Castor should have selected the third finalist, Miami Police Department Assistant Chief Cherise Gause.

In a statement to the Times, Davis also noted many young Black people are in prison for assaulting a police officer while O’Connor “will hold the highest position of enforcing the law in one of the state’s largest cities.”

Four City Council members who spoke to the Times — Chairperson Orlando Gudes and members Bill Carlson, John Dingfelder and Luis Viera — said they are hearing similar concerns from constituents.

Gudes said residents wonder if a Black officer would have gotten the same chance after such an arrest.

“It’s not just the Black community,” said Gudes, a former Tampa police officer who worked under O’Connor in District 3. “You have people in every community saying the same thing.”

Carlson said feedback about O’Connor’s selection has been negative, and “the left and right are united for different reasons.” He said Delgado has the support of police officers who have contacted him.

Dingfelder said people who have contacted him have been “universally disappointed.”

Council member Joseph Citro, who did not return messages from the Times, told Spectrum BayNews 9, “I’m not sure I can confirm Ms. O’Connor.” Citro said Delgado “has a better record” and department morale is high.

Council members Charlie Miranda and Guido Maniscalco did not respond to messages.

In response to questions for this story, Castor spokesperson Adam Smith said in a statement that the mayor picked O’Connor from three very strong candidates “after extensive background investigation, conversations with each of them, and presenting each to the community.”

“Mayor Castor’s choice was based not on politics, but from the deep knowledge of the department and progressive law enforcement she has gained over 31 years at the Tampa Police Department,” Smith said.

Supporters in O’Connor’s corner

People who have known O’Connor for years said skeptics should give her a chance.

Kevin Howell met O’Connor in the police academy. She was among the officers who saved his life when he was shot in the leg by a suspect in 1995 and helped him cope with the aftermath.

“I know her heart,” said Howell, who retired from the department in 2008 and is now campus safety director for the University of Tampa. “She thinks highly of the officers in the rank and file and making sure they go home at the end of the day.”

East Tampa resident Clay Daniels said he found O’Connor to be honest and fair. Daniels recalls O’Connor helping him years ago after a neighbor called police on him while he was collecting petition signatures against loud car stereos. Daniels said an officer wrote a “bad report” and O’Connor addressed the problem. He also remembers O’Connor working to improve communication between the department and the community.

Daniels rejects the idea that O’Connor should be blamed for the bicycle citations.

“It wasn’t a racist thing, it was to fight crime, and Mary O’Connor is going to fight crime,” he said.

Mary O'Connor talks with Clay Daniels in his East Tampa home in 2016, just before she retired as an assistant chief for the Tampa Police Department. Daniels said this week that O'Connor is hard-working and fair and worked to improve communication between police and the community.
Mary O'Connor talks with Clay Daniels in his East Tampa home in 2016, just before she retired as an assistant chief for the Tampa Police Department. Daniels said this week that O'Connor is hard-working and fair and worked to improve communication between police and the community. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Tampa Bay Times ]

John Newman, an assistant chief for the Tampa department when he retired in 2014, supervised O’Connor when she was a detective sergeant in District 2. He called her forthright, decisive and accountable.

“She embraced the idea that every time you take a call, act like it’s your family member that’s been victimized,” said Newman, now chief of security for the Hillsborough County School District.

Newman said he was aware of O’Connor’s arrest when she came to work for him. As chief, he said, “I think she’s going to do exactly what she did then. She’s going to put her head down and go to work.”

Delgado said in an interview that he looks forward to working with O’Connor, who he has known for 20 years.

“I’m still an assistant chief here and in that role I can still contribute, just like I would have been in any other role, in keeping the city safe,” Delgado said.

O’Connor said in an interview that she understands law enforcement officers must be held to a higher standard, but she said the experience of her arrest allowed her to “more accurately and objectively judge situations” as she rose up the chain of command, an ability that will help her as chief.

O’Connor said the bicycle citation initiative had “the purest of intentions with very unintended outcomes.”

“I believe that had it been communicated more thoroughly, not only to the community but also internally, perhaps the message would have been delivered a little bit better that we weren’t expecting citations,” she said. “We were expecting safety measures and at the same time the goal of crime reduction.”

Ahead of the council vote, O’Connor hopes to put the focus on what she wants to do as chief.

She wants to examine and enhance the department’s mental health crisis response teams that started last year. And she plans to expand wellness offerings, training and leadership development for officers.

O’Connor said the department has done a good job implementing reform measures and she is committed to making more progress. Asked about the criticism over the department’s handling of street protests after George Floyd’s murder, O’Connor said she wants to build trust with the community and respects the right to peacefully protest.

“And the goal of the department would be to protect those rights at all costs,” she said.