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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Open wider search for Tampa police chief

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn says he has internal candidates for the next chief of the Tampa Police Department and that he is not looking outside the department because "there's nothing broken." That charitable view misses the point of an open search for the second most important leader in the city. The mayor should reconsider and use a search as an opportunity to take a fresh look at policing and the direction of the department.

Chief Jane Castor's retirement this spring caps a fine career, and her service to two mayors will largely be remembered for a drop in crime and the respect and professionalism she fostered at the department. Still, her tenure has been marked by several embarrassments. In the past two years, six officers have been fired on misconduct allegations. A setup scandal led Castor to shake up the DUI unit, and she created a new professional standards bureau after several cases of poor policing that reflected a lack of diligence and command in the ranks. A Tampa Bay Times series also exposed sloppy management of confidential informants.

Buckhorn said last week he has three internal candidates on the short list to replace Castor, and that he does not plan to look outside the department before choosing her successor in April. "There's nothing broken about TPD," he said. That's a sweeping endorsement even if the recent problems are relatively few (although high-profile) in an agency of 1,000 officers. But a national search would bring a fresh perspective to the hiring process and provide a fuller picture of what's happening in law enforcement elsewhere that Tampa might adopt.

The three internal candidates each have 21 years or more with the agency, and their knowledge of the city and the department, their political contacts and the time they've spent auditioning in senior posts already give them an edge over outside applicants. The department has plenty of positive attributes, with its focus on feeder crimes, strong community presence, solid relationship with black leaders and good working ties with other law enforcement agencies. The department also shined on the national stage by capably handling security for the Republican National Convention in Tampa in 2012 and generally avoiding confrontations with protesters.

Still, the third-largest city in the third-largest state should be casting a wide net to find the best talent possible. Tampa has had success with that approach in recent years, reaching beyond the internal ranks to find gifted new leaders for the city, the port and airport, the arts and tourism.

Buckhorn made a good move in keeping Castor as chief, and she provided stability by staying on an extra year to get the mayor through his first term. With a new, four-year term beginning in April, Buckhorn should take the long view; the next chief will shape the department for a generation, both through his or her approach to policing and through staff promotions. The issue isn't whether the department is "broken;" that would be an immediate crisis for the mayor to resolve. The question is whether the chief's job in the 21st century should be reserved for a connected insider instead of being opened to the widest field of qualified applicants. Buckhorn himself made the most of this sort of opportunity after moving to Tampa in the 1980s. The city should welcome an open search and use the process to think through how the department should evolve in the post-Castor years.