Now that the Tampa City Council has confirmed Mary O’Connor as the city’s new police chief, it’s time to ask: How will she tackle the rise in violent crime? O’Connor hinted at some strategies during the runup to her confirmation in March, such as strengthening police ties in the community. But the public needs to hear a plan, and it needs to be bold and broad enough to make a difference.
Crime has reappeared as a political issue across the country after a long period of deep reductions. From 1991 to 2014, the U.S. murder rate plummeted by more than half. Property crimes, which are more common, also dropped significantly over the same period. But violent crime is ticking up. The U.S. murder rate rose nearly 30 percent between 2019 and 2020, the largest single-year increase in decades. And figures show the murder rate increased again in 2021. Experts point to a variety of factors, from the proliferation of guns and pandemic-related stress to a pullback by law enforcement in the wake of the 2020 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Tampa’s increase in violent crime mirrors what is happening more broadly across the country. While rapes and robberies have stayed generally consistent in recent years, the number of aggravated assaults in Tampa skyrocketed from 1,186 in 2019 to 1,714 in 2021. And Tampa’s murder rate has not only grown; it consistently outpaced the state and national averages in recent years. Since 2014, Tampa’s homicide rate has been about 50 percent higher than the state and national averages, and about twice those rates in 2017 and 2021. The number of homicides in Tampa in 2020 (41) was the highest figure since tying that number in 2003. And the 48 homicides last year were the most since 1994 (62).
There’s only so much a police chief or department can do to prevent a murder. Unlike public education campaigns aimed at encouraging residents to lock their doors, turn on their lights and report suspicious behavior, messaging has limited value in situations where extreme violence explodes in the heat of the moment.
But a range of crime-prevention strategies can help ratchet down the environment, from urging residents to secure their weapons and cracking down on gun trafficking to focusing police resources on neighborhoods with high levels of violent crime. O’Connor is right that building stronger relationships in the community is key to breaking down the no-snitch culture and to giving especially communities of color more confidence that law enforcement is on their side. But that is a long-term effort that requires sustained commitment.
The department can expand and formalize its ties with faith-based leaders, community advocates, educators, nonprofits and others to develop more comprehensive strategies for combating violence. The public protests in Tampa Bay and across the nation against police abuses in the aftermath of Floyd’s death underscore the fragility of trust between many law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve. Tampa should build on the dialogue that emerged here after Floyd’s killing to strengthen lines of communication between residents and police. And the mayor and council can help by following up with investments in hard-hit communities. Stable housing, better parks, lighted streets and a routine police presence are building blocks for a neighborhood’s quality of life.
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It’s also essential that police have an advocate in the mayor’s office. Mayor Jane Castor, who served as Tampa’s police chief, understands the connection between public safety and urban renewal. But residents need to hear from the new chief. What are her plans and strategies? How will the community be involved? How will the city track its progress and hold those accountable? The council’s confirmation gives O’Connor the full footing to begin making her mark. The entire Tampa Bay region has a stake in her success.
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.