Tampa Mayor Jane Castor has decided to forgo a national search for a police chief and tap interim Chief Lee Bercaw for the job.
Bercaw’s performance as interim chief and feedback from community leaders, residents and department personnel has made it “crystal clear” that the 27-year-veteran of the department is the right person for the job, Castor said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times late Thursday.
“The stress that is associated with that position, I can say from experience, there is nothing that prepares you for that,” said Castor, who in 2009 became the city’s first female police chief. “And he has demonstrated over the last six months that he is more than prepared to lead the Tampa Police Department into the future.”
Bercaw, 51, said in a prepared statement that he was honored by the appointment and looked forward to confirmation by the City Council.
“It has been an honor to serve the City of Tampa for the last 27 years in various capacities,” Bercaw said, “and I intend to continue the positive momentum we have already started over the last several months, which includes a focus on community engagement and collaboration to strengthen the relationships with our neighbors.”
Castor said last month that she was planning to contract with the Police Executive Research Forum to conduct a national search to find a chief after Chief Mary O’Connor resigned in December. Castor requested and received O’Connor’s resignation after an investigation found she violated department policies by asking a Pinellas deputy to let her and her husband go after they were stopped driving an unregistered golf cart.
Castor said she planned to wait until after the city runoff elections in April to begin the police chief search in earnest so that City Council members, who must confirm her pick with a majority vote, could weigh in on the search and selection process. The election cycle saw the ouster of two incumbents. Castor won a second term with only a write-in opponent.
Castor said Thursday that recent conversations she has had with council members indicate they will support Bercaw, and she hopes to bring the decision to the council for a vote as early as June 15. Several council members have previously told the Times that they would prefer to see someone from within the department hired for the job.
Others in the community have said that they would like to see an outside candidate bring fresh perspective to the department and that a national search could find such a leader, but Castor said she hasn’t heard overwhelming calls for that.
“By and large, the feedback that I get is very positive on the police department’s engagement and collaboration with our residents,” she said.
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Castor’s change of plans is reminiscent of her predecessor Bob Buckhorn’s decision in 2017 to call off a search that the Police Executive Research Forum began to find the next chief after Eric Ward retired. Buckhorn decided to appoint then-interim Chief Brian Dugan to the job, citing in part Dugan’s leadership during Hurricane Irma and the investigation into a series of murders in Seminole Heights.
Bercaw hadn’t said if he planned to apply for the job, telling the Times last month that he remained “open to considering all options, including remaining in my current role, when the time comes to make a decision on a permanent leader.” He said in a January interview with the Times that landing in the chief’s chair was never a goal of his, but that he aspired to a position where he could “help the department be better.”
Bercaw, 51, started with the department as a reserve officer in 1996 and went on to work in all three of the department’s patrol districts. He has had a hand in managing security for large events in the city, such as the Super Bowl, Gasparilla and the Republican National Convention, which Tampa hosted in 2012.
He helped oversee the expansion of the internal affairs division into what is now the Professional Standards Bureau and includes a quality assurance unit. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police officers, Bercaw was instrumental in organizing and facilitating Castor’s new Task Force on Community Policing. The task force came up with 17 findings and five “pillars” meant to improve the department and bolster its relationship with the community. In the January interview, Bercaw called his involvement “one of the highlights of my career.”
“We improved as an agency and I think we were one of the forefront leaders in that, in my opinion, based on seeing what was done across the nation,” Bercaw said.
After his appointment as interim chief, Bercaw went from a mostly behind-the-scenes assistant chief to the new face of a department rocked by the departure of a predecessor whose tenure began and ended amid controversy. He has made many community appearances and addressed reporters at news conferences and events.
“The more and more I do it, the more comfortable I get but I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to it,” he said.
In recent months, Bercaw oversaw a departmentwide redeployment that put a greater emphasis on community policing.
Castor said Bercaw’s successful efforts in engaging with residents and businesses and starting new programs and initiatives helped her decide he was right for the job. She called him a thoughtful leader who has been instrumental in reducing crime in Tampa, which like many American cities in the last few years saw a spike in violence.
“He’s always looking to innovate in the organization, and that’s critically important in any organization, but specifically in law enforcement because you have to be proactive,” Castor said. “You have to anticipate the issues that will come up in the future, and you really have to be a visionary and very collaborative and very inclusive. And that’s Lee.”
Bercaw, who is married with two grown children, has a doctorate in criminal justice from St. Leo University, and, from the University of South Florida, a master’s in criminal justice administration and a bachelor’s in criminology. In 2016, the USF Department of Criminology placed Bercaw on its Wall of Fame as an “Outstanding Criminology Ambassador.” He is also a board member of the Tampa Bay Area Chiefs of Police Education and Research Foundation.
Bercaw, who lives in Pasco County, will have to address a residency issue.
The city charter requires department heads such as the police chief to live in the city. O’Connor lives in Pinellas County and was leasing a condo in Tampa, a dual residency that drew a lot of attention after she resigned.
Castor said she doesn’t expect Bercaw to immediately move to the city, and that issue and others will be worked out in the weeks and months ahead.