The Tampa Police Department needs to reconsider how the actions of an officer and the commanders who oversee him have damaged the agency’s image among the public it serves.
Footage from a body-worn camera shows Officer Dukagjin Maxhuni taunting and cursing at a group of bystanders during a narcotics arrest in Ybor Heights in June 2022. The video, obtained last week after a Tampa Bay Times request, shows Maxhuni getting out of a car at an Ybor grocery to chase a suspect. The officer cut off the suspect, a young Black person, between the store and a car, knocking the person to the ground as other officers swarmed in. Nothing wrong with that, but it didn’t end there, the Times’ Justin Garcia reported. Maxhuni tried to antagonize several onlookers by calling them names and following after them as they walk away.
“Hey, hey, you’re not going to do anything,” Maxhuni tells them. “What are you gonna do?” he asked several times, walking toward the crowd. “You wanna be a tough guy? Come talk to me now,” Maxhuni said. “You little bitch boy.”
“Hey, come stand up to me, I’m standing right here, motherf---er,” Maxhuni said. “Motherf---ers, you should know who runs these f---ing streets, and it ain’t you all.”
He then walked back across the street to a crowd of fellow officers and boasted about how he took the suspect down with a flying knee again.
The taunting was outrageous behavior, especially from a 10-year department veteran. Is there any doubt what would have happened had the officer succeeded in provoking bystanders into a confrontation? Officers are trained to deescalate tensions; by escalating them, Maxhuni put not only bystanders but his fellow officers at risk. In a disciplinary order, his superiors wrote that Maxhuni’s comments were “vulgar,” “degrading” and “unprofessional,” and served to “embarrass the department and grossly impede the mission” of his fellow officers. The command staff recommended a one-day suspension.
Yet despite actions that his superiors noted were “in direct contradiction to the mission statement of the department,” the suspension was changed to a reprimand. The then-assistant chief who signed off on the decision, Lee Bercaw, was named Tampa’s police chief in June.
Law enforcement officers have a dangerous, stressful job, but managing the heat of the moment comes with the territory. In a statement, Tampa police said “this type of behavior will not be tolerated,” but by going easy, commanders sent a terrible message about discipline and respect.
The head of Hillsborough County’s NAACP chapter said the officer’s conduct undermined the work Tampa police and the civil rights group have undertaken to strengthen relations. She’s right. Police chiefs can talk until they’re blue in the face about the importance of community engagement. But those relationships are forged on the front lines, through the interactions between police officers and residents every day. This was an easy but lost opportunity to show that accountability matters.
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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.