Mayor taps Mary O’Connor for Tampa police chief

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TAMPA — A former Tampa assistant police chief will return to lead the department.

Mayor Jane Castor announced Tuesday that she selected Mary O’Connor over two other finalists, interim police Chief Ruben “Butch” Delgado and Miami Police Department Assistant Chief Cherise Gause.

O’Connor, 51, spent 22 years at the department and retired in 2016. Castor, a former Tampa police chief, knows O’Connor well. As she rose through the ranks, O’Connor worked closely in the department with Castor and John Bennett, a former assistant chief who now is Castor’s chief of staff.

Since then, O’Connor has worked as a consultant and trainer. She is a senior adviser with CNA, a law enforcement think tank.

Castor said O’Connor’s “deep understanding” of the department and the city, coupled with her experience working as a U.S. Department of Justice expert helping other police departments reduce crime, make her the right choice.

“She will now bring innovative ideas to Tampa to lead our police department into the future,” the mayor said. “Her vision is what Tampa needs right now.”

[In picking Tampa’s police chief, mayor has much to weigh]

O’Connor said her work around the country helped confirm for her that the Tampa Police Department is “the best police department in this nation.”

“We do so many things well in this agency but as with anything we always have room to grow,” she said.

Castor praised Delgado for his job as interim chief. He will remain on as an assistant chief along with Assistant Chief Lee Bercaw. Both stood alongside the mayor and O’Connor during the news conference.

“I feel confident that Butch will make a great chief of police one day,” Castor said.

Council members weigh in, police union ‘disappointed’

The announcement came five months after former Chief Brian Dugan retired. Castor tapped Delgado, one of Dugan’s assistant chiefs, to serve as interim chief while she searched for a permanent replacement.

The mayor, who served as Tampa’s police chief from 2009 to 2015, decided to forgo the traditional method of advertising the job, instead opting to work with Rodney Monroe, who served as a police chief in Charlotte, N.C.; Richmond, Va.; and Macon, Ga., to search for candidates.

Last month, Castor announced the three finalists and held an invitation-only forum to introduce the candidates. Delgado was unable to attend due to his father’s death.

When asked at the forum how many candidates the city had contacted, Castor said she did not know.

Castor’s pick must be confirmed by the City Council. The mayor said she doesn’t “expect issues there” and she’s hopeful O’Connor can start as early as next week.

City Council members reacted to Castor’s pick with measured tones.

City Council member Joseph Citro said his first preference would have been to retain Delgado.

“My impression of Mary O’Connor is that she served the city very, very well. I’m sure she would make a good chief. But Butch Delgado would have been my pick,” Citro said.

Citro said he would look at O’Connor “deeper” before committing to vote for her.

“I’m going to sleep on it,” Citro said.

Guido Maniscalco met O’Connor shortly after being elected in 2015 and remembers being the council member to present her with a commendation when she retired.

“There’s been a lot of change in the police department since she left, but, obviously, she has a lot of experience,” he said.

Maniscalco has a meeting with O’Connor scheduled for this afternoon.

“We’ll see where the conversation goes,” he said.

Council Chairperson Orlando Gudes, a retired police officer who served with O’Connor, declined to comment.

“I have no comment at this time,” Gudes said repeatedly when asked for his opinion on O’Connor’s selection.

Delgado, a 24-year-veteran of the department, had the backing of the Tampa Police Benevolent Association, the police union. In a statement, union President Darla Portman said the PBA was disappointed in the pick.

“Although we are disappointed, Chief Delgado did an amazing job over the last six months and we want to thank him for his leadership,” Portman said. “We want to congratulate Chief O’Connor and welcome her aboard. We are very much looking forward to working with her and her administration.”

From second chance to police chief

O’Connor started at the Tampa Police Department in 1994 after about two years with the Madeira Beach Police Department. Her career with the Tampa department nearly ended not long after it began.

In 1995, O’Connor and the man she would later marry, rookie Tampa officer Keith O’Connor, were arrested during a traffic stop. Mary O’Connor, known then as Mary Minter, repeatedly disrupted deputies who were trying to give Keith O’Connor a sobriety test, and she was asked to sit in a patrol car to calm down, according to published reports and personnel records. She kicked the windows and struck a deputy on the shoulder and chest with her fist.

Deputies arrested Keith O’Connor on a drunken-driving charge and Minter on charges of battery on a law enforcement officer, obstruction and disorderly intoxication. She pleaded no contest to misdemeanor charges of battery and obstruction. A judge withheld adjudication.

Both officers were suspended and then fired, but later reinstated. Both worked their way up to the top ranks of the department. Keith O’Connor retired in 2019 as an assistant chief.

Mary O’Connor’s personnel file after her reinstatement is filled with positive evaluations through the rank of captain, the most recent evaluation included. In an interview last week, she told the Tampa Bay Times she was “a success story” who got a second chance.

Asked at Tuesday’s news conference about how her arrest would affect her decisions as she disciplines officers, O’Connor said she believes “each case has to stand on its own merit” and that discipline has to be meted out in “a fair and impartial manner.”

“Just like the chance that was given to me 28 years ago to evaluate every aspect of my own case, I look forward to doing that with the men and women of this department as well,” she said.

O’Connor spent several years as a sergeant and lieutenant in District 2, which covers north Tampa, focusing on economic crimes. As major, she was in charge of the criminal investigations division.

O’Connor worked for seven months as a deputy chief before Chief Eric Ward selected her to be the assistant chief of operations in 2015 along with Dugan, who was named the assistant chief of investigations and support.

As assistant chief, O’Connor oversaw patrol operations in each of the department’s three districts. She helped create the Violent Crime Bureau, which works with federal agencies to combat violent crime, particularly gun violence.

When O’Connor retired, she told the Times she wanted to spend more time with the couple’s son and daughter, who were 14 and 9 at the time. O’Connor, who lives in Oldsmar, holds a bachelor’s degree in criminology from the University of South Florida and a master’s from Saint Leo University.

She named a few priorities at Tuesday’s news conference. The first is to connect with the community to build what she called a team approach to fighting crime.

O’Connor said she learned in her work as a consultant the importance of identifying the root causes of crime and partnering with social services providers to take the burden off officers and provide people with the help they need.

“We simply can’t arrest our way out of the problem. That doesn’t work,” she said. “But you can also rest assured that we will be holding the most violent offenders accountable for their actions.”

Delgado said he has known O’Connor for 20 years and that “she has the same mission as all of us, and that’s to keep the city safe.”

“Our mission is to reduce crime and enhance our life with our citizens, and that’s what we intend to do together,” he said.

Times staff writer Charlie Frago contributed to this report.