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  1. Opinion

Tampa police chief: Times article left out key facts

Officers stand near the intersection of North Boulevard and W Knollwood Street in Tampa after a Tampa police officer fatally shot Jason Westcott during a raid May 27. Police Chief Jane Castor says Westcott was given every opportunity to surrender.
Published Jul. 21, 2014

Editor's note: Tampa police Chief Jane Castor responds to "Deadly force for so little,'' published in print editions July 6. (The story was published online July 5, with the headline "Informer, not neighbor complaints, led up to fatal Tampa pot raid." A link appears below.)

We believe public safety and public trust go hand in hand, which is why members of the Tampa Police Department are determined to earn that trust every minute of every day.

We also fully understand our role and responsibility in keeping our citizens safe in a professional, ethical and transparent way.

That's why we take any actions involving a fatality very seriously and make sure we fully determine what happened, and why. The loss of a life is a devastating event for all involved and is rightfully open to public scrutiny.

As a matter of department policy, the use of deadly force is always a last resort, used only when the life of a police officer or another is in imminent danger. In the unfortunate instance that an officer has to use deadly force, it is fully and independently investigated, scrutinized and reviewed by our Homicide Unit, the State Attorney's Office and Internal Affairs.

—————

Backstory:

July 5: Informer, not neighbor complaints, led up to fatal Tampa pot raid

May 28: Police release name of suspect in drug raid that turned deadly

May 27: Police fatally shoot marijuana suspect in Seminole Heights

—————

After a painstaking review of all evidence, the state attorney makes an independent finding to determine if the deadly force was justified. Next, our agency completes an exhaustive administrative assessment to ensure there were no violations. The inference that Jason Westcott lost his life as a result of having sold marijuana is erroneous. He lost his life because he decided to point a loaded firearm at police officers.

Here are the facts: Westcott was dealing drugs from his house, where an informant purchased marijuana on four separate occasions. Each time, Westcott was armed with a 9mm pistol. These acts define Felony Armed Sale and Delivery of Narcotics. When weapons are involved with narcotic sales, our policy is to have the Tactical Response Team enter to secure the scene. The decision to use this specialty team has nothing to do with the amount or type of narcotics sold but is predicated on the potential for danger.

During the department's investigation of the threatened home invasion targeting Westcott, no one from our agency advised him to "grab a gun and shoot to kill" if anyone broke into his home.

It also is impossible to mistake the Tactical Response Team for home invaders. What I stated was officers began announcing themselves as they exited their clearly marked police vehicle parked in front of the residence, yelling loudly, "Police, search warrant." They stopped at the front door, banged loudly and again announced, "Police, search warrant" three times before entering. The article stated: "Officers knocked on the front door and announced themselves, but nobody inside answered. Finding the door unlocked, they let themselves into the house." This sounds like a visit from the Avon lady.

The article questioned the amount of marijuana purchased. I explained that, as good stewards of the tax dollar, we purchase enough to obtain probable cause for a search warrant, regardless of the amount available. I made clear that larger quantities of marijuana were observed inside the house, including approximately 40 prepackaged bags, a pound of hydroponic marijuana, digital scales and packaging materials. I also provided 15 examples of search warrants that involved small purchases followed by large narcotic seizures. In one case, officers purchased marijuana three times, totaling just 10 grams. That resulted in seizure of 395 grams of cocaine, 320 grams of marijuana, 35 grams of hydrocodone, two assault rifles, two shotguns, five handguns, two vehicles and $47,000. None of this information was included in the article.

What was not revealed (as requested), and now cannot be investigated further, was additional information suggesting trafficking in heroin.

The bottom line is that police officers are in the business of saving lives, not taking them. This incident is life-changing for all involved, including my officers. They did everything they could to serve this warrant in a safe manner. Every opportunity was given for Westcott to peacefully surrender. He chose to aim a firearm at police officers and, as a result, lost his life.

Ours is a difficult profession with very few clear-cut solutions. But we go out every day and put our lives on the line, doing what no one else will do, to protect our community and serve our citizens honorably. We do not seek recognition or appreciation, but we do expect fair and objective oversight of our actions. That was certainly not the case in the Tampa Bay Times article covering the search warrant on West Knollwood Street.

My officers deserve better, as do the people we serve.

Jane Castor is the chief of police at the Tampa Police Department.

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