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Mary O’Connor overcomes arrest as young cop, confirmed as Tampa police chief

The City Council voted 4 to 2 in favor of Mayor Jane Castor’s controversial pick. Council chairperson Orlando Gudes and Bill Carlson voted no, faulting the selection process.
Mary O'Connor, center, listens from the front row of the audience Thursday to comments about her nomination as Tampa chief of police. She is flanked by assistant chiefs Lee Bercaw, left, and Ruben "Butch" Delgado, who served earlier as interim chief and was a candidate for the permanent job.
Mary O'Connor, center, listens from the front row of the audience Thursday to comments about her nomination as Tampa chief of police. She is flanked by assistant chiefs Lee Bercaw, left, and Ruben "Butch" Delgado, who served earlier as interim chief and was a candidate for the permanent job. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Mar. 17|Updated Mar. 17

TAMPA — Mary O’Connor is now officially Tampa’s police chief, but it was close.

A divided City Council voted 4-2 Thursday to confirm O’Connor, a 51-year-old former assistant chief for the department who retired in 2016 and then worked as a consultant and trainer.

Council members Joe Citro, Guido Maniscalco, Luis Viera and Charlie Miranda voted to confirm O’Connor. Council chairperson Orlando Gudes and Bill Carlson voted no.

The seven-member council was down one member in the wake of John Dingfelder’s resignation on Monday to settle a lawsuit related to public records. The city charter requires at least four yes votes, so a tie vote would have doomed O’Connor’s confirmation.

Council members who voted for and against the confirmation, along with members of the public who spoke at the meeting, voiced concerns about the process Castor employed to pick O’Connor.

Viera said it had been “mishandled.” But, he added, “I think we need to distinguish between the process and the very good record of this woman.”

Carlson and Gudes weren’t convinced. Carlson called O’Connor a great candidate but said Castor’s moves were neither transparent nor inclusive.

“I would ask the administration to start over, be respectful of the public, be respectful of the City Council, be respectful of the balance of power,” Carlson said.

Citro, as chair of the council’s public safety committee, said he was among those who should have been more involved in the selection. Citro had supported Assistant Chief Ruben “Butch” Delgado, one of the finalists, and previously said he wasn’t sure he could support O’Connor. But he called O’Connor a “solid candidate.”

“Thank you, council,” O’Connor said after the vote. “I won’t let you down.”

Mary O’Connor receives hugs of congratulations Thursday at City Hall after a 4-2 vote to confirm her as Tampa's new police chief.
Mary O’Connor receives hugs of congratulations Thursday at City Hall after a 4-2 vote to confirm her as Tampa's new police chief. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

The vote came after five weeks of controversy since Mayor Jane Castor, who did not attend the meeting, announced she had selected O’Connor from among three finalists.

When Chief Brian Dugan retired last fall, Castor tapped Delgado to serve as interim chief while Castor conducted what she described as a nationwide search. She opted not to advertise for the post. Instead, she worked with Rodney Monroe, a former police chief for multiple U.S. cities, to seek out candidates.

Castor’s office announced on Jan. 26 that she had narrowed her search to Delgado, O’Connor and Cherise Gause, an assistant chief with the Miami Police Department. The administration held an invitation-only public forum that evening featuring the three candidates. Delgado was unable to attend the live-streamed event because of his father’s death.

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In announcing the nomination Feb. 8, Castor cited O’Connor’s familiarity with the department, coupled with her work as a policing consultant for other departments. Castor was Tampa police chief from 2009 to 2015 and knows O’Connor well. So does Castor’s chief of staff, John Bennett, a former assistant Tampa police chief.

But the choice puzzled and disappointed members of key constituencies along with some council members.

Members of the Hispanic community faulted Castor for passing over Delgado, a West Tampa native with Hispanic roots. The Tampa Police Benevolent Association also supported Delgado.

Members of Tampa’s Black community had concerns about O’Connor serving in department leadership when police were disproportionately citing Black bicyclists, a practice the U.S. Department of Justice determined to be burdensome and ineffective in fighting crime.

Across those constituencies, people wondered why Castor would pick someone who was arrested as a rookie officer, fired from the department and then reinstated instead of another leader with a clean record and as much, if not more, experience.

During a traffic stop in 1995, O’Connor struck a deputy and kicked the windows of a patrol car. She was arrested on charges of battery of a law enforcement officer, obstruction and disorderly intoxication, and pleaded no contest to misdemeanor charges of battery and obstruction. A judge withheld adjudication. She successfully fought to get her job back and stayed out of trouble for the rest of her career with the department, ascending to assistant chief of operations.

O’Connor said she was an immature person who made a terrible decision and then made the most of her second chance at a law enforcement career. She said the experience gave her valuable perspective that helped her as a cop and would help her as the department’s leader.

As the controversy simmered, O’Connor got to work. She was officially hired the same day Castor announced her selection and has been working as chief before the council confirmation, a point of contention for some council members. Gudes said the city charter should be revised to prevent this.

As members of the public approached the lectern to voice support or opposition, O’Connor, dressed in uniform, looked on from the front row flanked by her assistant chiefs, Delgado and Lee Bercaw. Her husband Keith O’Connor, a retired Tampa assistant chief and now the city’s neighborhood enhancement manager, sat nearby with the couple’s two children.

Tampa's six City Council members discuss whether to confirm Mary O’Connor as police chief during a meeting Thursday at City Hall. A seventh member, John Dingfelder, recently resigned.
Tampa's six City Council members discuss whether to confirm Mary O’Connor as police chief during a meeting Thursday at City Hall. A seventh member, John Dingfelder, recently resigned. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

Yvette Lewis, president of the Hillsborough branch of the NAACP, faulted what she called a lack of transparency and community input in O’Connor’s nomination.

“This process was flawed and needs to start over in order to build trust in the community,” Lewis told the council. She said the wounds from the bicycle citations are still open in the Black community.

East Tampa resident Valerie Bullock questioned whether her Black neighbors would have received the same sort of second chance after an arrest.

“Today we throw out the red carpet for second chances,” Bullock said. “Is that just for today, just for certain people or is it for all people?”

Among O’Connor’s supporters were several former Tampa police officers who worked with her. They described her as an innovative, dedicated leader who holds employees to a high standard and cares deeply about crime victims.

“Mary always reminded us that behind the numbers were actual people who deserve justice,” said Stephanie Puleo, a retired homicide detective.

Some who spoke in support of O’Connor said Delgado was their first choice but that they were impressed with O’Connor after meeting her. Among them was Simon Canasi, who said he found her to be forthright, engaging and “ready to lead.”

After the public comment and before the vote, O’Connor told the council that the last five weeks have allowed her to strengthen existing relationships and build new ones. She emphasized four priorities: engaging the community; ensuring the department has a robust officer wellness program; reducing crime; and developing a strong “quality assurance program” for the department “to ensure everyone in the city is treated with dignity and respect.”

She said her work as a consultant for the Department of Justice and the FBI showed her it’s critical that police departments not only solve crime, but also “identify the root causes of crime and work with our partners, including social services to address those root causes.”

Before the vote, Maniscalco agreed the selection process was flawed.

“Is it worth the battle to deny somebody? You have to pick your battles,” he said.

Gudes, a former Tampa police officer, said the rationale for his vote against her confirmation was not personal.

“I like you, Mary,” Gudes said. “I think you can do a good job. But the community has spoken and they feel disrespected.”

Bennett, the chief of staff, took responsibility for the criticism levied at the search process.

“So I’m looking forward to either now or later to work with council to fix our process,” Bennett said.

Speaking with reporters after the vote, O’Connor was asked what she would say to “naysayers” who spoke during the meeting.

“I say, ‘Give me a chance,’” she replied. “Let me talk to you, let me explain who I am, what I stand for and what this fine police department can do to turn the naysayers around.”

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