Council should confirm Tampa police chief Mary O’Connor | Editorial
O’Connor is qualified and has the mayor’s support.
Mary O'Connor was named as Tampa's new police chief in February.
Mary O'Connor was named as Tampa's new police chief in February. [ City of Tampa ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published March 15, 2022

The Tampa City Council is scheduled to vote Thursday on Mary O’Connor, Mayor Jane Castor’s selection for chief of the Tampa Police Department. O’Connor’s vision for policing is largely unknown, and the flawed process surrounding her appointment was both needless and damaging. Still, O’Connor is unquestioningly qualified to serve, and the mayor’s confidence in her brings added significance, given that Castor herself is a former Tampa police chief. The council should approve the appointment and work with O’Connor on making a strong, fresh start.

Castor announced Feb. 8 she had picked O’Connor over two other finalists — interim Chief Ruben “Butch” Delgado and Miami Police Department Assistant Chief Cherise Gause. The move followed an opaque search process; the city didn’t publicly advertise the job, or even disclose who or how many other candidates had been considered.

The secrecy fueled pushback from Tampa’s Hispanic community, which questioned why Castor bypassed the chance to appoint Delgado, a popular hometown boy from heavily Hispanic West Tampa. The furor put both O’Connor and Delgado into a squeeze. In recent weeks, O’Connor has made the rounds on a goodwill tour, and some Hispanic leaders have decided to move on in hopes that Delgado’s star eventually returns.

The mayor made a serious mistake with a junior-varsity selection process that all but excluded public input when it mattered. Nobody really cares who runs solid waste or fleet, as long as the departments run smoothly. But police departments impact the lives of residents in ways that other local agencies don’t. The police chief is the most important appointment any mayor can make, all the more reason to ensure a transparent search process.

Some critics, though, overplayed their hand by indulging in ethnic politics and personalizing this appointment. The chief’s selection is too important to be reduced to a popularity contest. And while the public knows little about O’Connor’s ideas for policing, Delgado and Gause were largely unknowns, too.

The task now is to separate the nomination process from the nominee. There’s no denying that O’Connor is qualified for the job. She spent spent 22 years climbing through the ranks at TPD before retiring as an assistant chief in 2016. She knows law enforcement, the Tampa Bay area and the players at City Hall. Since retiring, O’Connor has worked as a consultant assisting the U.S. Department of Justice and other police departments on reducing crime, an experience Castor says will help innovate TPD. O’Connor’s professional background and knowledge of the territory prepare her to manage this critical agency. And the mayor’s confidence in her should reassure the ranks of O’Connor’s leadership ability and clout.

O’Connor has a troubling black mark that nearly derailed her career. She was arrested in 1995 during a traffic stop on charges of battery of a law enforcement officer, obstruction and disorderly intoxication after she struck a deputy in the chest and kicked patrol car windows. She pleaded no contest to misdemeanor charges of battery and obstruction and a judge withheld adjudication. She was fired but later reinstated, and worked her way to the top ranks of the department. O’Connor said she learned from the experience, and her personnel file is filled with positive evaluations. It remains to be seen whether the episode compromises O’Connor’s ability to enforce discipline at the department. What we know is that she made the most of a second chance, and that rising over decades through the caldron of police work takes competence and mettle.

Spend your days with Hayes

Spend your days with Hayes

Subscribe to our free Stephinitely newsletter

Columnist Stephanie Hayes will share thoughts, feelings and funny business with you every Monday.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

Tampa’s city charter establishes the mayor as the administrative head of the municipal government. Yet while department heads are appointed by and report to the mayor, their nominations require the seven-member city council to “confirm or disapprove” the appointment with at least four votes. That’s a narrower role for Tampa’s council than for some other legislative bodies, which often have broader “advice and consent” authority. It underscores the charter’s intention to give the mayor broad discretion in selecting his or her executive team. In that sense, Thursday’s vote is not about who didn’t make the cut, but the merits of O’Connor as Castor’s nominee. This is not an exercise in ranked-choice voting, or an excuse to wage a proxy war over political turf.

Just as the chief is the mayor’s appointee, the chief’s record will reflect on the mayor, and voters can hold Castor accountable. It is ridiculous to think that a former chief would do anything intentional to hurt the department, and while the process wasn’t pure, the arguments in favor of O’Connor heavily outweigh voting her down and restarting the search. The Tampa Police Department has a range of issues to deal with, from an increase in violent crime to the need for law enforcement reforms after the George Floyd tragedy in Minneapolis. The council should confirm O’Connor and work with the chief in addressing these concerns of broad public interest.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.