TAMPA — Controversy clouded the runup to Mary O’Connor’s confirmation as Tampa’s 43rd police chief, but the sun shone on her swearing-in ceremony Friday.
Some 200 people gathered at the River Center to watch O’Connor put her hand on a Bible and take the oath of office, the second woman in the department’s history to do so. The first was Jane Castor, who now is mayor and chose O’Connor to serve as chief.
The ceremony had a celebratory air that seemed at times to acknowledge the difficulty in getting there. The morning sun beamed from a cloudless sky into the high-ceilinged room overlooking a mirror-calm Hillsborough River, and sliding glass doors were opened wide to let in the cool air.
In opening remarks, Castor thanked those in the room who “have played a significant part in us arriving at this momentous occasion.”
“You know who you are and I will be forever indebted to you,” Castor said.
Castor announced in early February that she had selected O’Connor, who was assistant chief of operations for the department when she retired in 2016, from among three finalists to be chief in the wake of Chief Brian Dugan’s retirement.
The pick caused some anger and disappointment among some in the community, including some council members who said they agreed with constituents who criticized what they saw as a flawed selection process. Some had concerns about O’Connor’s arrest as a rookie officer that led to her getting fired, then reinstated, and the fact that she was a leader as the department was disproportionately ticketing Black bicyclists. Some wanted Castor to pick Assistant Chief Ruben “Butch” Delgado, who had served as interim chief after Dugan left.
Last week, down one member after the sudden resignation of John Dingfelder, the City Council voted 4 to 2 to confirm O’Connor. Among the two “no” votes was Council Chairperson Orlando Gudes, who sat in the front row a few seats away from Castor during the ceremony Friday.
Castor thanked the council for the confirmation vote and said O’Connor, who has been on the job since the announcement and is paid an annual salary of $192,920, has already shown the mayor that she made the right call.
“I can say unequivocally that since I announced that Mary O’Connor would be our next chief of police nearly six weeks ago, she has gone about proving each and every day that she indeed is the best person to lead the Tampa Police Department,” Castor said, drawing loud applause.
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O’Connor, 51, started her brief speech by thanking her family. As she spoke, her husband Keith, son Ryan and her parents Janice and Thomas Minter looked on. The O’Connors’ daughter Natalie “found her chemistry class to be more important than this,” the chief quipped.
O’Connor looked at Castor and told her she’d make her proud. She told the City Council she wouldn’t let them down. Then she thanked her “Tampa Police Department family.”
“Those selfless efforts of all of you believing in me made me a better police officer and it’s going to make me a better leader in this city because I’m able to take such an objective view of what truly the needs of this community are,” she said.
O’Connor also thanked the community, noting that she has known many in the crowd for years and others she had just met in the last month and a half.
“Every day that I put this uniform on, I will strive to continually grow and improve your police department,” she said. “A key step in doing that is creating a team approach and doing this together.”
She reiterated her goals of engaging with the community, reducing crime and improving officer wellness and safety.
“Let’s get to work, Tampa,” O’Connor said at the end of her speech, drawing cheers and applause.
Speaking to reporters afterward, O’Connor said she already had started working with Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren and Public Defender Julianne Holt — both of whom attended Friday — on strategies to reduce the gun violence that is plaguing some parts of the city. She said a priority is connecting with young people in the city “in real positive ways to make sure they know gun violence is not the answer and also that the Tampa Police Department is there to help them and nurture them and help them grow.”
Asked about the preceding weeks’ controversy and if she felt pressure to convince skeptics, O’Connor quickly said no.
“The past is in the past,” she said. “I completely expected all of that and I just want to move this department forward.”