TAMPA — It was the last time that Jane Castor and David Straz would share a stage in front of a televised audience in a mayoral campaign already marked by the bizarre and nasty — and the chin music started Thursday night with the opening statements.
Before the first question was asked, Straz made a dramatic announcement declaring he had obtained a state report that “proved” Castor had manipulated crime data while she served as a top Tampa police commander.
The data in question comes from the Uniform Crime Reporting standards, which law enforcement agencies across the country report to the FBI each year.
Straz did not provide any details about this report, however, except to say that it would be posted to his campaign website. That had not happened as of 10 p.m.
“He has no idea what he's talking about,” the former police chief said during the debate, which was held at the downtown Tampa Theatre and broadcast on Spectrum Bay News 9.
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Afterward, the Castor campaign said Straz's supposed proof was a 2007 state audit by the state Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability that her campaign gave to the Straz campaign earlier in the week.
However, that report states that the way Tampa reported crime data was “significantly correct.”
“I can tell you our crime stats are accurate,” Castor told reporters after the debate. “We reported crime accurately by UCR standards.”
Straz didn't stay to take questions from the media afterward. But his campaign sent out a statement touting the report, saying that when the Tampa Police Department changed its reporting methods in 2006 it was an attempt to artificially lower the crime rate.
“Jane Castor manipulated the crime statistics for her own political gain,” the Straz campaign statement said. “This state report, which we finally obtained just two days ago, proves our allegations are true beyond the shadow of a doubt.”
But the report’s conclusions contradict that assertion: “The UCR reporting practices of the Tampa Police Department are significantly correct,” read the summary findings, adding: “The review did not identify any intentional misclassification or non-reporting of UCR offenses.”
Castor’s campaign pointed to the report’s conclusion as evidence that Straz was out of his depth trying to explain the crime statistics law enforcement agencies use throughout the country to assess crime trends and crime rates.
Straz campaign spokesman Jarrod Holbrook did not return a phone call asking for an explanation about the apparent contradiction between the 2007 audit’s conclusions and the campaign’s interpretation of its findings.
Castor said she was major when the crime reporting standards were changed in 2006 and the state audit was conducted in 2007. She served as police chief from 2009-15. She said the reporting changes her department and others in Tampa made in 2006 were part of a national trend to more accurately tabulate crimes.
Thursday was the latest of Straz's sustained attacks on Castor's three-decade-long law enforcement career. Last week, Straz claimed a ex-Tampa police officer and a criminal statistics expert would expose Castor's manipulation of the numbers. But the expert admitted he relied on “intuition” to reach his conclusion instead of examining the data. Two former police officers offered only anecdotal evidence that Castor on Thursday dismissed as inaccurate.
The Straz campaign promised a third retired Tampa police officer would come forward Friday to back up their claims. The first two officers, Gary Pruitt and Steve Brock, had significant conduct issues detailed in their police personnel files.
Aside from that old line of attack, Castor and Straz spent much of the debate grappling with transportation, affordable housing, red-light cameras and other issues. They were also asked to explain their most controversial statements or actions from the nearly year-long campaign by moderator Holly Gregory.
Neither candidate passed on too many opportunities to blast the other, often egged on by a raucous crowd which occasionally erupted in cheers or jeers despite Gregory's pleas for decorum.
In a 2014 SWAT raid, officers killed a marijuana dealer who had $2 of pot in his rental. Castor has said police did nothing wrong because the man pointed a gun at the officers. Straz said her explanation was “baloney.”
Castor dryly returned the favor after Straz touted his idea that creating a quality of life cabinet — a weekly meeting of department heads — is the key to solving neighborhood woes.
“We call that a staff meeting,” she quipped as the audience laughed.
Castor said a recent report of police officers being disciplined for turning off their body cameras was not the norm at the police department. Straz suggested she was out of touch.
“I have a different opinion,” said Straz. “If she believes there's one or two police officers — they all do a great job — that only one or two out of a thousand stepped off the line? She's a dreamer.”
The two candidates, whose collective fundraising of nearly $6 million has smashed Tampa’s campaign spending records, ended with very different appeals to voters.
Castor, 59, said her long career as a police officer gave her the leadership skills necessary to lead the city in good times and bad, such as during a crisis.
“I've handled hurricanes and manhunts,” she said. “I know how to get things done. This job is very serious. I'm the person you want answering the phone at 3 a.m.”
She added that she’s never kept “banker's hours.”
Retired banker Straz, 76, said he wouldn't respond to that “ridiculous statement.”
He focused on his long business career, during which he’s created thousands of jobs. Castor, a life-long public servant, hasn’t created any, he said.
“There is no one with better experience than I to run a budget like that,” Straz said. “When I am mayor of this city. I will run your money like I run my own.”
The election is April 23. As of Thursday, 24,209 mail ballots have been returned — about half of the total ballots cast in the first round of mayoral voting last month.