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Tampa police chief’s golf cart saga is a lesson in weak apologies
The minor traffic stop was just the beginning in a web of bad moves. What can we learn?
Former police Chief Mary O'Connor did not alert Tampa Mayor Jane Castor of the golf cart incident for 18 days, after Creative Loafing had requested the footage.
Former police Chief Mary O'Connor did not alert Tampa Mayor Jane Castor of the golf cart incident for 18 days, after Creative Loafing had requested the footage. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Dec. 6, 2022|Updated Dec. 6, 2022

Watching the Mary O’Connor traffic stop video feels like watching “Titanic.” By this point, we know how the story ends — not great — but we hang on in some limbo of the human condition, hoping against logic for a new outcome. We pray that the ship will not sink, that someone will do the right thing.

And, no, Tampa’s police chief finagling out of a golf cart infraction is not a catastrophe. No one died, got injured, had their civil rights violated or endured the hideous outcomes made possible when power is abused. But if Tampa’s top cop could go to such lengths to avoid a puny violation, what else might she do? O’Connor resigned Monday at the request of Mayor Jane Castor, which was the right move.

The event’s Margaritaville vibe only increased the cringe factor. Her husband, the cart driver Keith O’Connor, might have gotten off with a warning anyway; law enforcement officers have discretion. And if not, so what? A golf cart citation likely would have been $116. Probably not grounds for dismissal, not to mention manageable on O’Connor’s $192,920 salary. Not worth throwing away a career. The moment could have been a relatable reminder to Tampa Bay’s golf cart-loving public. Hey, check your carts! Is it registered, or is that a “5 O’Clock Somewhere” novelty license plate?

But, ugh. From the moment she asked the deputy if his camera was on, ugh. How she continued the “do you know who I am?” schtick after he confirmed as much boggles the mind. O’Connor’s grin, the badge reveal, the clear request to be let go, cringe, cringe, cringe. All made worse by the sly business card slip at the end, hard to fathom as anything but a Möbius strip of interoffice back-scratching.

She did not alert Castor of the incident for 18 days, after Creative Loafing had requested the footage. When it felt like this story couldn’t get ickier, O’Connor attempted to apologize.

“In hindsight, I realize how my handling of this matter could be viewed as inappropriate, but that was certainly not my intent,” she wrote.

It’s classic passive voice, blaming others for their perception of reality. She showed some contrition. But her explanation, detailed in a letter from Assistant Chief Lee Bercaw, was packed with equivocation: she didn’t know golf cart rules, she gives her business card to everyone, she showed her badge for safety reasons. Such quibbling implies that we who saw something with our own eyeballs are, you know, stupid. It also makes it harder for anyone to help her.

As we’ve seen since the dawn of the #MeToo movement and reckonings on race and policing in this country, humans don’t usually apologize well. A strong apology is direct, takes responsibility, makes amends and doesn’t pad itself in excuses. Police chief standards must be higher than most, in these times more than ever, and this golf cart one-act was buffoonish at best.

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And still, I find myself nursing reluctant compassion for people mired in a domino pile of their own making. I can think of times in my life where I’ve done the wrong thing and offered weak apologies, times I should have shown up in a more genuine way for those I hurt or let down. We all have moments that don’t represent our best, actions we would repair if we had a time machine. Failings live forever, a 3 a.m. ghost in the bed.

The city of Tampa has a hard, scrutiny-filled road ahead making this right, while golf cart users across the region are probably reviewing municipal rules. The rest of us can use this moment as a launch pad to recommit to high standards in low moments. Let this bizarre saga serve as a reminder going into the new year, a time for reflecting, for attempting to live with more integrity.

Choices never stop coming. Our worst moments might not end up on YouTube, but it never hurts to act like they will.

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