TAMPA – Tampa Mayor Jane Castor placed Police Chief Mary O’Connor on administrative leave Friday as the city investigates a traffic stop involving O’Connor last month.
Body camera video released Thursday shows O’Connor identifying herself to a Pinellas County Sheriff’s deputy as Tampa’s chief, pulling out her badge and telling the deputy to “just let us go” after she and her husband were pulled over in a golf cart in Oldsmar on November 12. The deputy, who pulled the O’Connors over because the van did not have a license plate, let them go without a citation.
A statement from Castor said Assistant Chief Lee Bercaw is serving as acting chief.
The incident has again unsettled an executive whose tenure was mired in controversy as soon as Castor announced she had chosen O’Connor for the position from among three finalists in February. Some residents, community leaders and city council members believed Castor made a mistake in electing O’Connor, in part because of how she behaved during a traffic stop in the mid-1990s. She and her then-boyfriend Keith O’Connor, who were both rookie officers at the time, were arrested, fired and later reinstated.
Yvette Lewis, president of the NAACP Hillsborough chapter, said O’Connor should be asked to resign.
“You see how (law enforcement) look out for each other and turn a blind eye, but they come to the community and say if you see someone committing a crime, say something,” Lewis said. “But if it’s in your law enforcement family, they don’t look and say something. They see something and shut up and walk away.”
Pinellas Deputy Larry Jacoby’s body camera shows him pulling over Keith O’Connor, who is driving a golf cart on a public road near Oldsmar’s East Lake Woodlands community. Jacoby notices that they are driving an unregistered vehicle on the road.
Keith O’Connor says they stopped to get food at a nearby restaurant and don’t normally drive the wagon on public roads. Mary O’Connor asks Jacoby if his camera is on. He says so.
“I’m the police chief in Tampa,” Mary O’Connor says, and a moment later she hands over her badge and says, “I hope you’ll just let us go tonight.”
Jacoby asks if they live in East Lake Woodlands and the couple confirms they do.
After exchanging pleasantries, Jacoby says they have “a lot of golf cart problems around here.” Mary O’Connor hands over what appears to be her business card and tells the deputy, “You ever need anything, call me.”
In a statement released along with the video by the police department Thursday, O’Connor said she has apologized to Mayor Jane Castor and wanted to apologize to residents.
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“In retrospect, I realize how my handling of this matter could be seen as inappropriate, but that was certainly not my intention,” O’Connor said. “I knew my conversation was on video and my motive was not to put the deputy in an uncomfortable position. I have personally called the Pinellas County Sheriff and offered to pay for any potential citation.”
In the same release, Castor called O’Connor’s behavior “unacceptable” and said she would face “appropriate discipline.”
The halt and timing of the city of Tampa’s release of the video and statements by O’Connor and Mayor Jane Castor raise a number of questions, including when and how Castor found out about the incident.
Creative Loafing Tampa Bay reported they received a tip about the stop and weeks ago the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office asked for the video. Around the same time the sheriff’s office provided the video, the newspaper reported, the Tampa Police Department issued a news release with the video and statements from O’Connor and Castor.
Crystal Clark, public information officer for the police department, said when and how Castor first learned of the traffic stop is part of the internal investigation, but, Clark said, O’Connor voluntarily told the mayor about the incident. Clark also said that O’Connor voluntarily provided the information to the public through his statement in the new release “in the interest of transparency and accountability.”
Clark said the press release would have been issued earlier, but the public information office was working “several active scenes” Thursday, including efforts to arrest former Tampa Bay Bucs player Antonio Brown and a crash that seriously injured a Tampa police officer.
Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office public information officers did not respond to questions Friday. A spokesman said Thursday that Jacoby’s handling of the traffic stop was not under review.
Council members agreed Friday that O’Connor should be placed on leave pending an investigation.
In a text message exchange Friday, Councilman Bill Carlson, who was one of two council members who voted against O’Connor, said Castor “must bring civility, ethics, transparency and accountability back to City Hall” and said “the next election process ” for the city’s police chief must be “national and thorough.”
“We need to listen to feedback from the community,” Carlson said. “The hard-working men and women of our police force deserve quality leadership that will help them do their jobs.”
Councilman Joe Citro agreed with Castor’s move.
“We have to have responsibility for everyone,” he said.
Councilman Luis Viera said what he has learned so far about the incident is “disappointing and disturbing.”
“This requires transparency with the administration about everything that happened and accountability if the investigation shows negative results,” Viera said. “The detailed investigation should be as quick as possible so we can get a quick resolution and move forward.”
Councilman Orlando Gudes, a former Tampa police officer who voted against O’Connor’s appointment, declined to answer when asked if he had thoughts on how O’Connor should be disciplined.
“Let the process play out and I hope it works out for her however it works out,” he said.
Council President Guido Maniscalco, Charlie Miranda and Lynn Hurtak did not respond to messages Friday.
Richard Gonzmart, a Tampa restaurateur and philanthropist who had backed then-interim chief Ruben “Butch” Delgado for the job and then came around to support O’Connor, called the incident “unfortunate.”
– The chief is a good person and has proven to be a good police chief who made a human error, Gonzmart said in a text message. “Mary O’Connor is not perfect and neither am I.”
Brian Higgins, a former New Jersey police chief and adjunct professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said he believes O’Connor could have used better judgment, but her actions were not a serious violation.
Tampa officials consulted with Higgins during their search for a police chief, so he was aware of O’Connor’s previous arrest. That story, he said, could affect how some view the more recent traffic stop incident.
“When you’re in a position like that, you have to win over your critics,” Higgins said.
Still, he said, the interaction doesn’t rise to the level of other traffic stops he’s seen, where elected officials and officers have threatened officers who pulled them over or even gotten into fights. And he said officers like Pinellas deputies have discretion to decide how to respond during traffic stops. He likened the interaction to a parent begging an officer for leniency as he rushed to pick up their children.
“I don’t think this is one of those cases where she threw the weight of her position around or intimidated the officer,” Higgins said. “I think it was more of a professional courtesy.”
O’Connor’s predecessor, Brian Dugan, said the police chief is held to a higher standard than others in the department, in large part because the chief must sign off on all disciplinary actions.
“If I was the commander, I would be concerned about my credibility with the enlisted men when it comes to conduct in general, how we conduct ourselves in public both in and out of uniform,” Dugan said.
Times staff writers Natalie Weber and Matt Cohen contributed to this report.