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David Straz accuses Jane Castor of lying about her record on crime, but his numbers don't add up

Tampa mayoral candidate David Straz waves a report during a Tuesday news conference that he says proves his  opponent, Jane Castor, manipulated crime statistics during her time serving as a top commander and then chief of the Tampa Police Department. [CHARLIE FRAGO   |   Times]
Tampa mayoral candidate David Straz waves a report during a Tuesday news conference that he says proves his opponent, Jane Castor, manipulated crime statistics during her time serving as a top commander and then chief of the Tampa Police Department. [CHARLIE FRAGO | Times]
Published Apr. 2, 2019

TAMPA — David Straz accused Jane Castor of misrepresenting the facts about a reduction in crime when she was police chief, but the mayoral candidate struggled Tuesday to explain what those facts were in a news conference.

And he cited an increase in Tampa's murder rate that didn't withstand scrutiny.

At issue was Castor's claim that crime went down by 70 percent when she was a high-ranking Tampa police officer, including chief. Straz disputed those numbers, saying they represented a "disingenuous style of management" that gave Tampa residents a "false sense of security."

He said Castor manipulated crime statistics and waved a report he offered as proof.

"Jane Castor's method of campaigning, in my opinion, is to completely misrepresent the facts," said Straz.

But Straz's report was largely a compilation of media reports, including Tampa Bay Times stories, and campaign messaging. And the retired police chief and criminal justice professor who was paid to back up Straz's assertions acknowledged he had never examined the data in question.

Joel F. Shults, a retired small-town Colorado police chief and consultant, said he was an expert in the Uniform Crime Reports that local law enforcement agencies submit to the FBI. He said the 70 percent figure cited by Castor is "of no value for the consumer of that information because of the way its been processed."

When asked why he hadn't reviewed Tampa Police Department data, Shults said: "You develop an intuition that lets you know when something is not quite right."

Shults was paid $5,000 by the Straz campaign, said Straz spokesman Jarrod Holbrook.

Shults said he relied on the account of former Tampa police corporal Gary Pruitt. Pruitt said the department began merging crime statistics like auto burglaries in an attempt to lower their city's crime rate.

But when asked by reporters when this happened, Pruitt estimated in 2004 or 2005, at least four years before Castor became chief.

And Shults acknowledged the practice of consolidating multiple criminal offenses into a single offense is allowable under UCR guidelines. Shults suggested that system allows police departments across the country to massage crime statistics to their benefit.

Pruitt ran unsuccessfully in 2018 against Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister and stars in a Straz commercial that debuted Tuesday. It repeats the claims that she lied to Tampa residents about crime reduction. Pruitt has already filed to run again for sheriff in 2020.

"Why did I come forward now? I saw the runoff and I knew we just didn't need Jane Castor," Pruitt said, acknowledging that his relationship with Castor soured before he left the department in 2015.

Chronister criticized Straz for his comments.

"It is concerning to listen to someone with no experience on criminal justice issues talk inaccurately about crime rates while attacking the career of a dedicated law enforcement professional with more than three decades of selfless service,'' Chronister said.

Castor's campaign said her department's statistics had been audited by the FBI, Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Florida Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability. A Castor spokesman challenged Straz to present evidence that any misconduct had occurred.

"There apparently are no depths that David Straz won't sink to in his relentlessly negative and bizarre campaign, and now he is attacking the honesty of Tampa's entire police department,'' Tim Wagner, Castor's campaign manager, said in a statement.

"The bottom line is Tampa residents worked very hard with Tampa Police officers to make our city safer, and lies by Straz won't change that."

When asked to explain what evidence of deception he had aside from Pruitt's account, Straz referred reporters to the campaign's report, which didn't contain any evidence of manipulated statistics from police data. When asked to describe the evidence, Straz said homicide and rape totals had risen during Castor's tenure.

"These are the important things for the people of Tampa. They are getting a false sense of security from somebody who doesn't tell the truth," Straz said.

But Straz's claims don't add up.

Straz said homicide rates rose 70 percent while Castor was chief. In the report, that figure was arrived at by calculating the percentage between the 20 homicides in 2009 and the 34 murders in 2015.

But Castor didn't become chief until October 2009. And she left the job halfway through 2015.

Seventeen of the 34 homicides in 2015 occurred after she left, according to police department statistics, rendering the Straz calculation virtually meaningless.

For the five full years that Castor was chief the annual murder totals were fairly steady: 27 in 2010, 28 in 2011, 23 in 2012, 28 in 2013 and 28 in 2014.

Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727)893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago.