Tampa mayor picks firm to search for next police chief

Mayor Jane Castor will contract with the Police Executive Research Forum to find the next leader of the department, but she’s not in a rush.
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor has chosen the Police Executive Research Forum to conduct the search for the city's next police chief.
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor has chosen the Police Executive Research Forum to conduct the search for the city's next police chief. [ Times (2022) ]
Published May 12|Updated May 13

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor has decided on a firm to help find the city’s next police chief, but she’s in no hurry.

Castor has selected the Police Executive Research Forum to help with the search, according to her spokesperson Adam Smith.

The city has not yet signed a contract with the organization, Smith said in an email responding to questions from the Tampa Bay Times. He said the search is expected to take several months.

“There was no need to rush this given the excellent leadership of Interim Chief Lee Bercaw,” Smith said.

The Times previously reported that Castor planned to use an outside organization to do the search but would wait until after the city runoff election in late April so she could get input from City Council members, who must confirm her pick with a majority vote. As it turns out, this election cycle saw the ouster of two incumbents.

Gwendolyn “Gwen” Henderson defeated Orlando Gudes in the March general election to take the District 5 seat. Alan Clendenin claimed the citywide District 1 seat in the runoff. Incumbent Joe Citro didn’t make it to the runoff.

The council members were sworn in on May 1 along with Castor, who won a second term against a write-in candidate.

The new search gives the mayor a chance for a do-over of sorts after her selection process the last time around — and the person she picked — drew criticism and sparked controversy.

Castor in February 2022 announced that she’d picked former Tampa assistant Chief Mary O’Connor from three finalists to replace Brian Dugan after he retired. Critics said the process lacked transparency and community involvement, and they questioned if the search was truly national, given that the job was never publicly posted. Some community leaders said Castor should have picked interim Chief Ruben “Butch” Delgado, who has since retired.

After the selection, Castor chief of staff John Bennett told the council that Castor fulfilled her commitment to take a national look at candidates by working with consultant Rodney Munroe, a former police chief. But two of six council members present for O’Connor’s confirmation vote, Gudes and Bill Carlson, voted no.

O’Connor resigned in December after an internal investigation into a Pinellas County traffic stop during which she flashed a badge and asked a deputy to “just let us go.” Castor appointed Bercaw, O’Connor’s assistant chief, to serve as interim.

The city has prior experience with the Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit whose website describes it as “a police research and policy organization and a provider of management services, technical assistance, and executive-level education.”

In 2017, after police Chief Eric Ward resigned to take a job in the private sector, then-Mayor Bob Buckhorn selected the organization to search for his replacement. Among the roughly 60 applicants were several high-ranking officials in some of the nation’s largest police departments. But Buckhorn called off the search and tapped Dugan, who was serving as interim chief, citing his leadership during Hurricane Irma and the investigation of a series of murders in Seminole Heights.

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The policing profession has undergone significant changes since then, the organization’s executive director, Chuck Wexler, said.

George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police officers sparked nationwide protests and calls for reform. In Tampa, tensions erupted between police and protesters who saw officer tactics as unnecessarily aggressive and violent.

Across the country, Wexler said, “people want to see more accountability, more transparency and policing to really evolve.”

“At the same time, during the pandemic, we saw a spike in violent crime, especially shootings and homicides,” Wexler said. “So I think it’s fair to say that departments are looking for both those who want to take policing to the next level but are also cognizant of the real crime issues they’re facing today.”

Wexler, who emphasized that he and Castor have had only “preliminary conversations” about his organization conducting the search, said he’s confident the Tampa job will once again draw quality applicants.

The Tampa Bay area is already viewed by many in other parts of the country as an attractive place to relocate, Wexler said. And Castor, who in 2009 became the city’s first female chief of police, is nationally known in the profession.

In 2017, the city agreed to pay the Police Executive Research Forum $40,000 but paid a prorated rate after Buckhorn called off the search. Wexler said he couldn’t estimate how much their services might cost this time.

It was also unclear this week how many internal candidates, if any, plan to apply. The Times asked Castor’s office if Bercaw or any other employees have told Castor they want the job. Smith said the office didn’t want to comment on potential applications before the job was posted but said there is “lots of early interest in the job internally and externally.”

Tampa Interim Chief Lee Bercaw and his deputy chiefs, Michael Hutner and Calvin Johnson, on the city's website,
Tampa Interim Chief Lee Bercaw and his deputy chiefs, Michael Hutner and Calvin Johnson, on the city's website, [ ]

Asked this week if he plans to apply, Bercaw said in a prepared statement that he “remained open” to staying in the chief role.

“I have dedicated nearly three decades of my life to this department, so it goes without saying that I love what I do and I am passionate about serving this community alongside the hardworking men and women of the Tampa Police Department,” Bercaw said. “I remain open to considering all options, including remaining in my current role, when the time comes to make a decision on a permanent leader.”

Bercaw’s deputy chiefs, Michael Hutner and Calvin Johnson, said in December they were also keeping their options open and this week provided similar responses through a department spokesperson.

Council members who spoke to the Times have said they support doing a national search, but some would favor an internal candidate over a similarly qualified outside applicant.

Henderson said she supports Castor’s plan but would prefer someone who already “is admired and respected by the officers that they will be in charge of.”

“I come from an educator’s mindset, and when people are selected for positions, if you have some familiarity with them, you’ve already assessed their abilities and what they’re capable of,” said Henderson, who works as a department head at Jefferson High School.

Clendenin said a national search is a “prudent” way to find a successful candidate, whether that person is inside or outside the department. He said the department, which he called one of the best in the country, is in good hands with the current leadership, and the feedback he’s heard from residents about its police force has generally been positive.

In a police chief, residents “are looking for accountability, they’re looking for transparency,” Clendenin said. “They’re looking for someone who can set the tone for a peaceful, safe and harmonious environment, both within the police force itself and within the community.”