Eric Ward's contribution to public safety in Tampa goes far beyond his two years as chief of police. Ward, who announced his retirement Thursday, was a law enforcement professional and bridge builder who strengthened the department and improved relations between police and the black community at a critical time. His successor should be equally attuned to the dynamics of a growing urban area and to the evolving expectations for law enforcement.
Ward, 50, announced he would leave to take a position with Tampa-based Coca Cola Beverages Florida, ending a 29-year department career for the Tampa native whom Mayor Bob Buckhorn named as chief in May 2015. Ward grew up in public housing in predominantly black East Tampa, and he credited a strict mother and school mentor for guiding him to public service. He was not the longest-serving or most visible chief in Tampa's history. But Ward was a calming influence who understood the responsibility that came with the uniform and the value of public trust in the department.
His tenure is evidence that police departments needn't choose between their officers and the people they serve. Ward inherited a backlash in the black community from TPD's practice of stopping black bicyclists on the pretext of criminal suspicion — which was nothing more than racial profiling and harassment. A Tampa Bay Times investigation published a month before Ward became chief found that TPD issued more bike tickets than any other agency in Florida, and eight in 10 went to African-Americans. After Ward became chief, the abusive stops were sharply curtailed virtually overnight, and the city cooperated with the U.S. Justice Department in adopting reforms that helped professionalize the department and repair its image.
Ward was proud of the department, and he thought a closer connection with residents would strengthen his agency and improve public safety. He sought public input on police practices, encouraged his officers to leave their vehicles and make contacts on the street and restructured an evaluation system to give officers credit for more than making an arrest. More broadly, he spoke against the open carry of guns, supported youth programs and insisted his officers show courtesy and respect. Ward set the right example because he believed in accountability. "It's a concern for the community," he said once, "so it's a concern for me."
Ward had been scheduled to retire by September 2018. Buckhorn appointed Assistant Chief Brian Dugan, a 27-year veteran, as interim chief, and said he would conduct a national search to find a successor. In naming Dugan, Buckhorn maintains continuity in the department, which includes nearly 1,000 sworn officers and 300 civilian employees. Dugan was one of three finalists when Buckhorn appointed Ward, and he is fully prepared to serve as chief.
Buckhorn is right to search for the best possible talent. But the term-limited mayor leaves office in spring 2019, and as a practical matter outside candidates may be wary of pursuing the chief's job with a new mayor around the corner. Buckhorn needs to make clear that this selection process will truly be competitive. Tampa is a much different place than even when he became mayor in 2011. Downtown is a business, residential and cultural center. Older neighborhoods are coming back. Serious problems still exist in many minority neighborhoods, with a lack of decent jobs and housing. The next police chief needs to recognize the many dimensions that contribute to public safety. And like Ward, he or she needs to counter any perception that there still is a them and us.