Controversy surrounds incoming Tampa Police Chief

Mary O'Connor Headshot
Posted at 6:09 PM, Mar 16, 2022

TAMPA, Fla. — On Thursday, Tampa’s incoming Police Chief is scheduled to appear before Tampa City Council to start the confirmation process. Since the mayor announced Mary O’Connor as her pick for the role last month, there’s been controversy swirling over O’Connor, her past, and if she’s the right person for the job.

In February, Mayor Jane Castor announced her pick for Tampa’s top cop.

“In the final analysis, it is Mary O’Connor who stood out,” Castor said during a press conference.

Mary O’Connor served the Tampa Police Department for 22 years, rising to the rank of assistant chief before retiring in 2016. Since then, the city said she spent time traveling the country, teaching and providing subject matter expertise and training to law enforcement and criminal justice executives. She also served as a consultant to the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

“I am honored and humbled to stand before you as Tampa’s newest Police Chief,” Mary O’Connor said during a press conference in February. “I believe in this community and in this department and together, we can do great things.”

During the press conference last month, Mayor Castor appeared confident in a clear path forward.

“The mayor appoints the Chief of Police, but that confirmation, we get confirmation from council, which we don’t expect any issues there,” said Castor.

Since then, some people in the community have voiced concerns over the process behind the pick and the pick herself.

ABC Action News spent some time at Tampa Police headquarters sorting through Mary O’Connor’s personnel file. In it was a notice of disciplinary action.

The notice describes an incident in 1995 during a traffic stop where O’Connor, then Mary Minter, was the passenger. The report said during the investigation, “you became loud and argumentative with the on scene deputy,” stating “your behavior regressed to the point where the deputies had to restrain you and place you into the back seat of their marked unit.”

While in the police car, the report states “you began kicking the windows,” later saying, “you became abusive towards the deputy and struck him on the chest with your fist.”

The notice states deputies subsequently arrested her for battery on a law enforcement officer, disorderly intoxication, and interfering with a law enforcement officer. A file from the following year indicates she was to be reinstated after originally being dismissed. Documents show a judge later signed off on a court order to seal her records.

The city said in a statement, “Mayor Castor was aware that Mary O’Connor made a mistake nearly three decades ago, learned from it, grew from it, and rose through the ranks to become an outstanding leader of the Tampa Police Department.”

During her selection announcement in February, O’Connor briefly touched on her past when asked about officers with disciplinary problems and second chances.

“I evaluate the totality of the circumstances. I think every case stands on its own merit,” said O’Connor. “I believe in second chances, wholeheartedly as you pointed out, but I also believe that discipline needs to be given in a fair and impartial manner. So I think 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.”

The field for Tampa’s police chief was ultimately narrowed down to three finalists, including then-interim Chief Ruben Delgado.

Last month, the Tampa Police Benevolent Association expressed their disappointment Delgado wasn’t chosen, while still congratulating O’Connor. ABC Action News spoke with Tampa PBA spokesperson Danny Alvarez about it all this week.

“Once we had our opinion known, and we understand that the mayor went in her direction, we’ve been very supportive of her, and we know that if Chief O’Connor gets selected, which we think she will, we wish her the best and we’re ready to support her,” said Alvarez.

The controversy surrounding the incoming chief came up during a lengthy City Council meeting on Feb. 17. Council members said they had been flooded with feedback from constituents.

“I’ve received a ton of communication from the community, from people that I never expected would contact me, and all but one were against the said nominee,” said Council Member Guido Maniscalco.

“I’ve gotten way more calls on this except for any other thing than 'Toilet to Tap,'” added Council Member Bill Carlson.

Council members also expressed disappointment in the process through which O'Connor was selected.

“Constituents are calling. They’re unhappy,” said Council Member Joseph Citro. “They’re saying there was no transparency in the selection.”

In particular, some members like Council Chair Orlando Gudes expressed frustration that O'Connor began acting as chief immediately after she was appointed by the mayor on Feb. 8, before any confirmation vote from council. Responding to that line of inquiry in the Feb. 17 meeting, city staffers answered that the selection process followed the city's charter.

According to the charter, "The mayor, within 90 days after taking office or after a vacancy shall exist, shall appoint and submit to the city council for confirmation, by no fewer than four votes of the entire council, heads of department and any administrative personnel with administrative authority or responsibility equal to or greater than that of a department head."

City Attorney Gina Grimes pointed out that the city followed the same process when Delgado was appointed interim chief in Oct. 2021, months before he was confirmed by council.

Nevertheless, Gudes has since said it might be time to amend the charter to prevent appointees from assuming their roles before council approval.

Councilman Luis Viera agrees that the process of selecting a new chief has exposed gaps that should be addressed and remedied. However, he said O'Connor should not be faulted because of frustrations concerning procedure.

“The nominee should be judged based upon her record and what she brings to the table," he said Wednesday. "The process and how it’s been done is a whole separate issue that is not just room for potential improvement, it’s room for obvious improvement.”

In the Feb. 17 meeting, council members also questioned what happens if they don’t vote to confirm. City Chief of Staff John Bennett stopped short of answering council's hypothetical, but the charter would allow Castor to submit a new nominee or resubmit O'Connor's nomination for council approval.

“I can tell you, a police department that functions at this level, should not go very long without a chief in place," Bennett told council.

“Mayor Castor’s pick for somebody who’s accountable and responsible for the safety of the city is Mary O’Connor," Bennett assured them, minutes later.

ABC Action News reached out to the city about the selection process for the chief. The city said the mayor relied on her vast network of law enforcement leaders and experts to look at the potential candidates across the country, narrowing the list down to three finalists. The city said she held a live-streamed public forum for the community to meet the finalists, spoke at length to each, and ultimately decided on Mary O’Connor.

“We are always advocating for a second chance, and so we definitely understand that, but dealing with this office here, we get so many complaints with even kids that’s in the school, high school, and if they brush up against a police officer, it’s called battery on a police officer,” said Yvette Lewis, the President of the NAACP Hillsborough County Branch. “It didn’t look right with the African American community.”

Lewis explained their various concerns with O’Connor as chief, including her past record. Lewis also thinks there were problems with the process.

“If the city said that they were going to do a nationwide search, it should’ve been a nationwide search, and it should have been open and transparent for the community too because these are our taxpayer's dollars,” said Lewis. “The process was flawed from the beginning, and I think personally that it should be thrown out and started all over again, and let’s do it right.”

ABC Action News reached out to the Tampa Police Department for an interview with O’Connor. TPD sent the following statement:

“Chief Mary O’Connor is excited to lead the Tampa Police Department into the future and has already connected with community leaders to discuss her vision on how she plans to move the department forward. Chief O’Connor is energized and has already put key initiatives in place. Her years of experience in law enforcement has made her the strong leader she is today. She looks forward to working with community partners and building positive relationships throughout the Tampa community.”

City leaders say O’Connor has met and spoken with organizations and groups in the community and consulted with City Council members in the past few weeks. The plan is now to formally submit O’Connor’s appointment to City Council on Thursday.