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Jane Castor defends her record as Tampa police chief

Former Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor says she’s proud of her leadership of the department, but there were controversies. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Published Mar. 25

TAMPA — Jane Castor was Tampa's police chief for nearly six years, giving her plenty of time to acquire a public record.

But in the 10 months since she announced her run for mayor, only one issue has received sustained attention from her rivals: the disproportionate ticketing of black bicyclists for minor infractions that has come to be known as "biking while black."

Castor has apologized for that policy, put in place during her time as chief from 2009 to 2015. But other controversial incidents during her tenure haven't received much scrutiny in the race to the April 23 election.

In 2013, her DUI squad was involved in two high-profile arrests that led to embarrassing news coverage, its supervisor being fired and an overhaul of the unit.

That same year, a top-ranking homicide detective, Eric Houston, and his police sergeant wife, LaJoyce Houston, were involved in a tax fraud scheme based inside the station house.

And in 2014, a 29-year-old with a clean criminal record was fatally shot by tactical officers during a drug raid in River Bend. Officers went there based on a tip from a confidential informant who later recanted.

Does Castor take blame for what some critics see as failed management?

The former chief, who played basketball for the University of Tampa, offers a sports analogy to describe what she sees as unconnected events rather than evidence of systemic dysfunction.

"If you're not going to get off the bench, you're not going to make any mistakes,'' Castor told the Times in an interview. "But you're not going to have any success, either.''

Her old boss agrees. Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who has endorsed Castor, said the occasional misdeed will happen in any agency with nearly 1,300 employees.

"There will be bad apples. On occasion, a couple of them will make bad decisions,'' he said. "She took the appropriate steps and did so quickly, which I would expect of a manager."

That's not how Albert Fox sees it. A little more than six years ago, Fox spent nearly 12 hours in two Hillsborough County jails after being arrested for DUI despite a 0.0 result on his breathalyzer test.

Fox sued the city and received a $65,000 settlement in 2017.

"She's either a chief that intentionally overlooked misdeeds or she's an incompetent leader," said Fox, 74, who is an informal adviser to the campaign of Castor's runoff opponent, David Straz.

Fox points to former Sgt. Ray Fernandez, who was involved in his arrest, as the leader of a "rogue DUI squad" that was involved in the high-profile arrest of Tampa attorney C. Philip Campbell a few weeks earlier.

Fernandez arrested Campbell and charged him with drunken driving as part of a scheme by a rival law firm to make him look bad. The firm was representing radio personality Bubba the Love Sponge in a lawsuit against Campbell's client, radio shock jock Todd "MJ" Schnitt.

Three lawyers have had their licenses suspended for helping to set up Campbell's arrest.

John Fitzgibbons represented Campbell. He wrote a letter that blasted Castor for not firing Fernandez. Shortly after, Castor did just that.

Today, Fitzgibbons praises Castor for reorganizing the DUI squad after convening an outside panel to suggest changes. The former federal prosecutor said he plans to vote for her.

"Being chief of police is one of the most demanding jobs in a community. I believe that, overall, Chief Castor did an excellent job in running the department," he said.

Castor said she regrets her initial hesitancy to fire Fernandez.

"The reason that I pushed back was that I knew Ray Fernandez my entire career and he looked me right in the eye," Castor said. "And that was the story he gave me and I believed him. And I found out in short order that he lied."

Fox doesn't buy it. He noted the controversial arrest had been public for months before Castor got rid of Fernandez.

"When was she right? When she fired him or when she praised him?" Fox said.

READ MORE: Tampa police fire former DUI supervisor

Fernandez wasn't the only rogue employee under Castor's supervision. The Houstons pleaded guilty in federal court in connection to the tax fraud scheme that made national headlines and placed Tampa firmly in many people's minds as the epicenter of malicious identity theft.

Prosecutors suggested that LaJoyce Houston gave personal information from a private database to a former police informer who then filed fraudulent tax returns and collected the refunds.

Purchase records for school uniforms, Swarovski crystal jewelry, a MacBook Pro and records of money orders and credit card payments also pointed to tax fraud, prosecutors said.

Ultimately, the Houstons pleaded guilty to two counts of receiving stolen government property.

Castor said she acted swiftly in firing both employees. She said her officers unraveled the scheme.

"I would submit that in other organizations Eric Houston would have continued working and retired from the job," Castor said.

READ MORE: Eric Houston lives every day in shame

A third incident has already made recent headlines in the mayor's race.

Straz, Castor's opponent, met last week with Patti Silliman, the mother of a man fatally shot by Tampa police in 2014. Officers shot Jason Westcott during a raid based in part on information provided by a confidential informant who later said he repeatedly lied about suspects, including Westcott.

Westcott pointed a gun at officers before they shot him.

The two officers involved were cleared by the Hillsborough State Attorney's office, but Straz said last week there may have been a cover-up, though he offered no details. Castor says Straz is continuing a pattern of making wild charges without evidence. And she defended her department's use of confidential informants, saying they were properly vetted and appropriately handled.

READ MORE: Informer, not neighbor complaints, led to fatal Tampa pot raid

Aside from her initial reluctance to fire Fernandez, Castor said she wouldn't have done anything differently in the three cases. But she implemented a quality assurance program to ensure consistent oversight of policy and procedures before she left to "make sure there was ownership and initiative" in the police department.

Tom Manger, the immediate past president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, said while it's not uncommon for police chiefs to run for elected office, their success often relies on how the community views the department.

A recent example: The mayoral campaign of former Chicago Police Chief Garry McCarthy. Once considered a strong candidate, McCarthy fizzled after the fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald in 2014, losing badly in the recent primary.

"If your police department comes back in a public survey with a strong favorable rating, then the police chief has a better chance than in a place like Ferguson," Manger said, referring to the Missouri city racked by riots following tensions with policing in 2014.

Will Tampa voters sour on Castor, who tripled Straz's vote in the March 5 primary, if they're reminded of black eyes suffered during her time leading the department? Straz has started running tough television ads about her tenure.

Castor doesn't think so.

"I don't think the voters will buy it because they've lived it.,'' she said. "They have lived their relationship with the Tampa Police Department."

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story provided an incomplete account of Jason Westcott's fatal shooting by Tampa police officers.

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

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