TAMPA — The news conference Tampa Mayor Jane Castor held Friday to announce her pick for the city’s next police chief shared some similarities with the last time she announced a police chief appointment just 16 months ago.
Castor stood at a lectern in the lobby of the department’s downtown headquarters to explain her decision. Then her newly appointed chief got to speak. But there was a notable difference this time around.
Standing behind Castor as she announced that she had tapped interim police Chief Lee Bercaw for the job were four members of the seven-member City Council. That’s already the simple majority needed to confirm Bercaw’s appointment, and two council members who could not attend told the Tampa Bay Times they support the selection.
“It makes sense,” said council member Gwen Henderson, who attended the news conference along with chairperson Guido Maniscalco and council members Bill Carlson and Charlie Miranda. “Why go on a national search when you have talent right here?”
The show of early support from council members indicates Bercaw’s appointment will easily garner confirmation, and it reflected how Castor handled the process differently this time around.
When she announced she’d picked former Tampa police Assistant Chief Mary O’Connor as chief after Brian Dugan retired, several council members criticized what they said was a selection process that failed to take into account input from the council and community. O’Connor’s confirmation was in doubt from the start, but passed with a 4-2 vote.
By December, O’Connor was out, resigning after an internal investigation found she violated department policies by flashing her badge during a traffic stop in Pinellas County and telling a deputy she hoped he would let her and her husband go.
Castor appointed Bercaw, a 27-year veteran of the department who was serving as assistant chief under O’Connor, to lead the department during what Castor said would be a national search that would begin in earnest after the city runoff elections in April. Last month, Castor said she’d picked an organization to conduct the search.
But in an interview Thursday with the Tampa Bay Times and during Friday’s news conference, Castor said Bercaw had shown in the last six months that he could do the job well and there was no need to look outside the department.
“I have watched him navigate through so many different issues and do an outstanding job,” Castor said Friday. “He has not only continued to hold the Tampa Police Department up to the standards that our community expects, he has grown and moved this department forward.”
Council members who spoke to the Times on Friday agreed.
Carlson, who has clashed with Castor’s administration over a variety of issues, including O’Connor’s appointment, said Castor had reached out to him to talk about Bercaw and other issues. He said he told her he no longer thought it was necessary to do a national search and that he would support appointing Bercaw at least until he must retire as a member of the state’s Deferred Retirement Option Program, known as DROP.
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Bercaw’s retirement date is in September 2024, but Bercaw could continue to work for the city after that date as a contracted employee, as Dugan did after his deferred retirement period ended.
“The community needs stability, the men and women in the police force need stability,” Carlson said.
Carlson said that when he learned on Thursday that Castor would announce Bercaw’s appointment, “I said I want to stand with you to show that we’re unified in support.”
Council member Luis Viera, who couldn’t attend due to a family matter, said Bercaw brings the institutional knowledge and stability the department needs.
“The Tampa Police Department has had four police chiefs in the last few years and we don’t need a fifth,” Viera said. “Chief Bercaw provides a good, steady hand.”
Council member Alan Clendenin, who was elected to the council’s District 1 at-large seat this year and serves as the council’s chair pro tem, said he was impressed with Bercaw’s vision for the department and his emphasis on community policing. Clendenin was also pleased that Bercaw supports bolstering the Tampa Police Athletic League.
“He’s got a lot of experience, he’s got a good disposition, he holds himself well and he’s a man of integrity,” Clendenin said. “That’s the kind of person you need to lead, and sometimes the answer is right in front of your nose.”
Council member Lynn Hurtak did not immediately return a message seeking comment Friday.
There was also a representative of a key constituency standing behind Castor on Friday: Jim Miller, vice president of the Tampa Police Benevolent Association, the union that represents the city’s roughly 1,000 sworn officers.
PBA President Brandon Barclay, who wasn’t able to attend the news conference, said he was pushing for Castor to tap Bercaw. The interim chief took the helm at a tumultuous time for the department after the controversy over O’Connor’s hiring and departure, Barclay said, and has been doing “a phenomenal job.”
“I think trust had been eroded with the public with the way the last chief exited the department, and I think we need somebody there that has zero discipline history, has no skeletons in the closet,” Barclay said. “There’s literally nobody that can say anything negative about Lee Bercaw.”
Barclay said the rank-and-file officers in the department respect Bercaw’s calm demeanor, his varied experience with the department and his thoughtful, evenhanded approach to disciplinary cases and other policy matters.
Not everyone backed the idea of scrapping a national search.
State House Rep. Dianne Hart, who lives in East Tampa, said she was hoping the search would yield a qualified outside candidate who could bring a fresh perspective to the department. But Hart said she has been encouraged by the interactions she has had with Bercaw, calling him responsive.
“All I can do at this point is give him an opportunity to prove himself,” Hart said. “However, I will definitely be on my police department to do something about the gun violence that we’re experiencing in my district.”
Yvette Lewis, president of the NAACP Hillsborough branch, offered a similar assessment.
Lewis said that her interactions with Bercaw have been positive and that he has shown himself to be open to accountability and having “candid conversations” about complaints against officers and equality in the department for officers of color.
“We’re going to work with what we got and definitely hope and aspire to mend relationships and bridge relationships between the community and the Tampa Police Department,” Lewis said.
Bercaw has said expanding community policing efforts, reducing violent crime and improving the department’s relationship with the city it polices are among his top priorities.
Speaking Friday with members of his command staff behind him, Bercaw noted that he has spent his entire career at the department and has seen it go “from good to great.”
“While this may be the beginning of a new chapter, we’re not starting over by any means,” Bercaw said. “It’s keeping that momentum going, and that’s the skill set that I have with the leaders standing behind me and to my side. And that’s our goal, is to continue making Tampa the best place to live in the nation.”
Once confirmed, Bercaw will see a pay bump. His current salary as interim chief is $184,766 and will increase to $198,702, according to the city’s human resources department.
He also will have to work out a residency issue. Bercaw lives in Pasco County and the city’s charter requires department heads to live within the city limits. Castor said this week that Bercaw plans to establish residency in the city.