Tampa Mayor Jane Castor and her chief of staff John Bennett are former Tampa cops who go way back.
Castor and Bennett ascended the ranks at the Tampa Police Department together and in 2009, when then-Mayor Pam Iorio made Castor police chief, Castor promoted Bennett to assistant chief of operations, the job she’d just vacated. When Castor was elected mayor in 2019, she made Bennett her chief of staff.
So when a rumor started circulating recently that Castor planned to tap Bennett for the police chief job left open by Chief Mary O’Connor’s abrupt resignation, it seemed plausible to some given this shared history and Bennett’s long experience with the police department.
But Castor is denying that she plans to appoint Bennett to the chief post.
“Complete nonsense,” Castor said through her spokesperson, Adam Smith.
“That’s not under consideration,” Castor said. “He’s doing a great job where he is.”
Smith also provided a statement from Bennett.
“I’m very happy in my role assisting all departments in the city,” Bennett said.
Smith said Castor has not changed her plan, reported by the Tampa Bay Times last month, to start a national search after the city’s April 25 runoff election. That election will determine the winners of any City Council races in which a candidate does not receive a majority of votes in the March 7 general election. Waiting until after the runoff, Smith said last month, will “ensure early input” from City Council members.
Castor is facing only a write-in candidate in her own reelection bid and is expected to sail to a second and final term.
Castor previously said she will likely start interviewing search firms before the general election.
It’s unclear when the rumor about Bennett first began circulating. Patrick Manteiga, editor and publisher of La Gaceta, the trilingual Tampa newspaper, briefly mentioned it in his As We Heard It column in the paper’s Jan. 20 edition.
“We heard an interesting rumor that after the election, (Castor) will appoint her chief of staff John Bennett Jr. as Tampa’s top cop,” Manteiga wrote.
Brandon Barclay, president of the Tampa Police Benevolent Association, said he started hearing the rumor about that same time and asked Bennett about it.
“He said he and the mayor haven’t discussed anything about him becoming chief,” Barclay said.
Barclay noted Bennett’s work history and the fact that as chief of staff, Bennett “still keeps up with the running of the department.”
“If there’s anybody that knows the department inside and out it’s definitely him, so it would just seem natural to me that he could easily step into that role,” Barclay said.
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Bennett retired from the department in early 2015, then took a job with Pinellas County government as an assistant administrator overseeing emergency management. He left that post in 2017 for the private sector, taking a job with NC4, a California-based firm that provides services such as cyber threat intelligence, emergency management and risk management for law enforcement agencies and Fortune 500 companies. He came back to the city after Castor won her first election.
There are other people working in the police department now who know it well, too, including the person currently doing the chief’s job.
Castor tapped Lee Bercaw, who was O’Connor’s assistant chief, to serve as interim chief while the search is underway. Bercaw recently told the Times that he expects to make a decision on whether to apply for the job when the application period opens.
Under Bercaw are two deputy chiefs, Michael Hutner and Calvin Johnson. Hutner oversees operations and Johnson oversees investigations and support. Neither has said whether they plan to apply for the chief post.
Some City Council members, who must confirm Castor’s pick for chief, have said they would prefer to hire someone from within the department or at least someone local who knows the city.
City Council Chairman Joe Citro, who said he didn’t “give any credence” to the Bennett rumor, is among those who hopes Castor will pick someone local. Citro thought Castor should have picked then-Assistant Chief Ruben “Butch” Delgado, who was one of three finalists along with O’Connor, and said this week that he still has hope that Delgado could return to the department. Delgado retired last year to take a job in the private sector and has not said if he plans to apply this time around.
Citro said he also thinks Bercaw “would make a great candidate.”
“Let’s just see what happens,” Citro said.