In Q&A, Tampa police Chief Mary O’Connor talks about goals and pressing issues

In Q&A, Tampa police Chief Mary O’Connor talks about goals and pressing issues
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TAMPA — About nine weeks ago, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor announced that she’d picked Mary O’Connor to serve as the city’s next police chief, setting off one of the most contentious debates over the position in the department’s history.

A divided City Council voted last month to confirm O’Connor, who retired from the department in 2016 as an assistant chief and then worked as a law enforcement consultant and trainer. Now she’s moving forward with her goals to improve what she says is one of the best police departments in the country.

In a wide-ranging interview with the Tampa Bay Times last week, O’Connor talked about her goals for the department, strategies to combat violent crime, how she hopes to build trust in communities of color and how she hopes to diversify the department’s ranks.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why did you want to come back to do this high-stress job?

I realized very shortly after I left that I wasn’t done with my calling. My husband and I have a very, very long history of serving the city of Tampa, and when Keith went back to work (as the city’s neighborhood enhancement manager) … I almost felt like a longing for that because consulting and training, while it’s very rewarding and it was extremely beneficial for my professional and personal growth, it’s also nice to kind of bring it all back home. And law enforcement is a very camaraderie-centric job, so when you leave the profession, you almost lose a sense of your identity to a certain extent. When the opportunity presented itself when Chief (Brian) Dugan retired in September, the first thought that popped into my head was, ‘Well, I want to get that job.’

How would you describe your first five weeks or so trying to do the job while also having the controversy about the selection and the question of your confirmation hanging over you?

I would describe the first five weeks, six weeks, as tumultuous, but it also drove me more than ever to prove to the community that I was the right choice for the job. So through all of the controversy, you take a moment to step back and self-reflect and say, ‘You know, the mayor chose you, Mary. Step into the role and prove to the community that you are the right choice.’ So the controversy also created a drive in me to succeed and show everyone that I’m going to do right by this community.

Let’s talk about your three goals and take them one by one. What’s your plan to increase community engagement, and how’s it going?

I think it’s going really well. I always go back to COVID when I talk about community engagement and I think that the virtual world that we lived in for, quite honestly, a couple of years really set back the value of a face-to-face conversation, and I think we just got very used to communicating on Zoom in social media and phones and texting. I just think that there’s tremendous value in being able to look someone in the face and converse, so I want to try to keep the gatherings up.

I think that we need to attend a lot of community meetings. I was at the V.M. Ybor Neighborhood Watch Association last night. I’ve been to tons of community events in the last six weeks, all of which were all face-to-face and very well-attended.

With that being said, there’s still a portion of society that probably is uncomfortable coming to gatherings. So I think that any gatherings or any platforms that TPD is invited to, there needs to be virtual meeting options. I want to create opportunities for community listening, whatever that looks like. … The community really needs to drive how TPD does business through its concerns, priorities and the values that the community has.

Officer wellness is the next one. What do you think is missing at TPD? And what is your plan to address that?

I think TPD is pretty classic in the model that we have an Employee Assistance Program that officers can reach out to if they feel like they need help. They can go to the gym and they can work out. and I just think that having a gym and having an (Employee Assistance Program) is not enough. There’s always been a stigma attached to officers reaching out for help, and I really want to kind of change that culture a little bit and change that message that it’s OK to not be OK and to ask for help if you need it in order to save your career, your family, your livelihood, everything that can be lost when an officer goes down the spiral of alcohol abuse or drug abuse or domestic violence or whatever is causing that stress.

I just ordered 1,000 copies of Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement by Dr. Kevin Gilmartin to pass out to all of my sworn members of my agency. It just gives tips for coping mechanisms of, like, how to get a better sleep at night and how to eat healthy and how to just try to not let the stress eat you alive. … I think that the officers in order to better serve the community need to have happy and healthy lives, both physically and mentally.

Your third goal is reducing violent crime. What can be done about gun violence that hasn’t already been tried, especially when it comes to the increase of juveniles getting shot and doing the shooting? You recently said you’ve had conversations with Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren and Hillsborough Public Defender Julianne Holt and that focusing on children is a priority.

The first conversation I had was with Andrew Warren. We both came to the conclusion that the No. 1 priority in the community needs to be gun violence, so at least our priorities completely aligned.

I went back and met with my chaplains pretty early on in March and I said, ‘Listen, what can we do together to make the community safer?’ And they were all in unison, ‘You partner with the churches.’ The churches and the pastors reach such large audiences, and people that feel less than secure in their lives often reach out to their pastors and their faith leaders to make them feel better. If the message from the pastors and the priests and all of our faith-based leaders is ‘Gun violence is not the answer’ and ‘If you see something, say something’, then we’re reaching a much larger audience, and it’s a trusted member spreading that message.

As far as youth violence is concerned, I’ve partnered with Rise Up for Peace. That is led by Patricia Brown and Jay Johnson. Both of those individuals lost their children to senseless gun violence. They want the community to know that this gun violence needs to stop, that gun violence, particularly for youth, is not the answer.

Many of the neighborhoods most affected by violent crime are communities of color where trust in the police is sometimes tenuous. How do you increase trust in those communities to improve the chances of getting cooperation to successfully investigate and prosecute crimes?

Transparency, legitimacy and communication. I really believe in strong communication. I have to have an open ear and I have to have an open mind to anything the community says, and that includes all of the rank and file of Tampa PD, not just me. And we need to be transparent and have credibility with the community by doing what we say we’re going to do. If we say we’re going to increase our presence in the parks during the summer to prevent gun violence or we’re going to engage in more youth programs or we’re going to partner with the pastors on patrol or the clergy, they need to see us doing that because actions are much louder than words.

How do you plan to track progress on the violent crime fight and hold yourself and the department accountable for that progress?

Progress and success is tracked by data and metrics, so if we just look at the murder rate or the violent crime rate and it continues to be on the plus side, then we’ve got problems. We really need to be laser-focused on the number of shootings that we have, and I’m not even talking murders. I’m talking nonfatal shootings because those far exceed the murders.

The Tampa Police Department is very fortunate to have a lot of technology and a lot of evidence-based policing initiatives that we can use in order to link cases together and bring cases to successful resolution. It should be no surprise that a lot of these cases that we see are linked to each other, whether it’s retaliation or whether it’s gang-related. I have a new data integrity unit that’s working directly for the chief’s office that is carefully analyzing all of our crime rates, particularly our violent crime, and they analyze the numbers every day.

You’ve emphasized the need to identify the root causes of crime and work with partners including social services to address those root causes. What is the department doing on that front and does more need to be done?

The department is still kind of in its infancy stage in this area, and it’s just going to have to be built as time goes on. We do have a new behavioral health unit, an officer partnered with a clinician, and the co-response model goes out and tries to intervene on mental health calls to provide services at that level to avoid mental health calls in the future, to get that person the help that they need.

But I think the bigger picture here is reaching out to our partners. We have a lot of partners in the community that are working on social services. We have Gracepoint, we have ACTS (Agency for Community Treatment Services), we have Meals on Wheels. We have so many wonderful organizations out there that are providing social service resources to our community members. And I think that being able to partner with them and making sure that we’re not overlapping any services and making sure that any gaps are filled is key.

Obviously, we have a very big opioid crisis going on and we have an Opioid Task Force, where our detectives are going out to the overdoses in order to try to identify the root cause of it, i.e. the dealer that dealt the fentanyl to the person that overdosed, whether they’re still alive or they’re not. So we’re trying to get the bigger picture of opioids, and how we’re doing that is through our federal partnerships. Last week, I hosted a very large meeting at TPD headquarters of our federal partners. I had the U.S. attorney there, I had DEA, ATF, FBI. We all got together to see how we can take our partnerships and our prosecutions to the next level.

You weren’t with the department during the 2020 protests, but you have a good sense of what happened and the tension between departments and protesters, especially over police tactics at protests. What have you learned about that chapter in the department’s history and what is your message to critics of the way the department handled the protests?

Without fully knowing both sides of the story, I would be remiss to come up with an opinion, but I want the community to know that I respect the rights of every community member and I respect the right to express their freedom of speech, their right to protest. But we have to meet somewhere in the middle as far as where the criminal activity is concerned. I think that once it turns into illegal activity, we have to do our job, but yet we have to respect each other’s opinion.

It was very hard to watch from the outside looking in. There’s obviously a lot of disenchantment in the community, there’s obviously a lot of pain, and we’re going to be respectful of that, but we also have a mission, and our mission statement is pretty simple. It’s to reduce crime and improve the quality of life through a cooperative partnership.

The demographics of the department’s officers are not really reflective of the city it polices. A recent check showed about 70 percent of officers are white and only about 43 percent of the city is. What’s being done to address this and can more be done, and if so, what?

I think that we need to have recruiters in place so that young men and women of color or other ethnicities, i.e. Hispanic, can feel like they can speak to someone who looks like them and has a culture like them. And I’ve heard that from a lot of community members, about people trusting people who look like them. If that’s the case, which I’m hearing a lot, then I think we need to diversify our recruitment and personnel division. That’s a start.

How do we reach our young people? How do we reach our Hispanic community? We do it with a Spanish-speaking video. We do it with a Spanish-speaking officer that can recruit Spanish-speaking young people to come and want to be a part of Tampa PD. We increase the youth opportunities to come in and learn what the police department is all about. … I want the department to reflect the community it serves, but that’s a challenge and I welcome ideas from the community in that regard.

Critics of the city’s Citizen Review Board say it needs more tools to hold the department accountable. They wanted the board to have subpoena power and its own attorney and more members appointed by the City Council. You might recall a compromise was reached last year between the mayor’s office and the City Council. Where do you stand on giving more power to the board?

I guess I would really have to get to know what the history of the board has been over the course of the last six or seven years that it’s been in place. It’s my understanding that the board and the police department have always had a very good relationship. I don’t feel like there was a time, at least I don’t know of many times, where the board needed information that we were not able to give them. So if the board requested information, and it was a reasonable request, we supplied it to them. So I guess the need for more power to be given to the board would have to be driven by the board’s lack of getting their needs over the last six or seven years, which I don’t believe has happened.

Do you believe that officers who use force in the line of duty, up to and including deadly force, should be able to invoke Marsy’s Law and remain anonymous if they’re an alleged victim of a crime, and what is your policy for these cases moving forward?

I feel like the public deserves to know what’s going on in their police department. We serve the public. If the community wants to know something, I feel that we have to make every effort to fulfill that request. I really would like to take it on a case-by-case basis. If an officer is legitimately attacked and doesn’t discharge his firearm and is a victim of a crime … I would prefer to invoke Marsy’s Law and let his name be private. I haven’t come across this issue yet, but when I do I just want to take in all the facts before I make that decision.

How long do you see yourself doing this job? Police chiefs last about five years nowadays.

I would like to do five years. I think that I have enough gas in my tank and enough energy that I could do five years and then take it from there. I support the mayor’s needs, whatever the mayor needs from her police chief. If I’m the vision that she sees leading the department, I’m going to keep this position as long as she feels that we’re a good match for each other, and I think right now she feels that we’re a good match for each other and I’m going to put the department in a good place.