Nothing excuses Tampa police Chief Mary O’Connor’s behavior when she was stopped by a Pinellas sheriff’s deputy last month. In whipping out her badge and asking for a break, O’Connor abused her authority, betrayed her boss, embarrassed her constituents and eroded public faith in the promise of equal treatment before the law. While the city placed O’Connor on leave Friday, that’s not good enough. She needs to resign; if not, Mayor Jane Castor should fire her.
O’Connor was a passenger in a golf cart driven by her husband, Keith, that a Pinellas deputy stopped at about 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 12 in Oldsmar. In a video recorded by the deputy’s body camera, the deputy approached and told the couple they were driving a vehicle without a license plate on a public roadway. O’Connor, who already had her badge at the ready, asked the deputy: “Is your camera on?” When he said yes, O’Connor slid her badge forward and said: “I’m the police chief in Tampa.”
“I’m hoping that you will just let us go tonight,” she tells the deputy.
The deputy says O’Connor looked familiar. They briefly exchange pleasantries before he tells the couple: “Have a good night.” O’Connor shakes the deputy’s hand and hands over a business card. “If you ever need anything, call,” she says.
“Okay,” the deputy responds.
“Serious,” O’Connor adds.
We know that police officers sometimes give their colleagues in law enforcement a break. But our concern here is not with the deputy, or that Keith O’Connor, a retired Tampa police deputy chief now employed as a city of Tampa department head, was not cited for a missing tag.
What’s wrong is that Mary O’Connor used her status as Tampa’s police chief to keep her and her husband from facing any consequences that night. Why any police officer (much less a chief) would flash a badge under such minor circumstances is hard to fathom. The behavior also showed an ignorance of what the badge stands for and undermines confidence in police everywhere.
The office O’Connor occupies doesn’t belong to her; that badge she flashed symbolizes the public trust in her judgment and abilities, which this episode shows, can be a very fleeting thing. O’Connor has also underscored the cynicism that there are two sets of rules, one for the Mary O’Connors of the world, and another for the rest of us. On that score, her handing the deputy a business card and inviting him to call was as bad as flashing her badge. Was she offering him a coupon, a return favor in exchange for getting out of the potential trouble she was in?
O’Connor cannot possibly reestablish Castor’s trust after embarrassing the mayor. After all, it was Castor who appointed O’Connor chief earlier this year, despite another traffic stop three decades ago, when as a rookie Tampa officer, O’Connor was arrested on several charges stemming from another traffic stop with her future husband, Keith, also a police rookie. Both officers were suspended and then fired, but later reinstated. Mary O’Connor assured skeptics she learned from the experience, and Castor stood by her nominee and won city council confirmation.
In statements Thursday, both O’Connor and Castor expressed regrets, now that the story’s gotten out, and officials said an “internal review” of the incident is underway. O’Connor also asked “to receive the same discipline that any officer would receive for similar conduct.” But O’Connor’s not “any officer;” she’s the chief. Does anyone at City Hall get it?
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Castor placed O’Connor on administrative leave Friday, pending the outcome of the investigation. If this is another incremental step to buy time, downplay the incident and save the chief from resigning or being fired, then Castor will have to deflect a barrage a criticism as she seeks a second term in the March elections.
O’Connor has damaged her image beyond repair. If she doesn’t recognize it, Castor should.
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 and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.