Tampa police Chief Mary O’Connor resigns amid traffic stop controversy

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TAMPA — The tenure of Tampa’s 43rd police chief has ended as it began 10 months ago: amid controversy.

Chief Mary O’Connor resigned Monday effective immediately after an investigation into a Pinellas County traffic stop last month where she flashed a badge and asked a deputy to “just let us go.”

Mayor Jane Castor said Monday that she asked for and received O’Connor’s resignation after a review by the department’s internal affairs bureau found that O’Connor violated the department policies on “standard of conduct” and “abuse of position or identification.”

“The Tampa Police Department has a code of conduct that includes high standards for ethical and professional behavior that apply to every member of our police force,” Castor said in a statement. “As the Chief of Police, you are not only to abide by and enforce those standards but to also lead by example. That clearly did not happen in this case.”

Castor said in the statement it was “unacceptable for any public employee, and especially the city’s top law enforcement leader, to ask for special treatment because of their position.”

“This is especially disappointing because I gave Mary O’Connor a second chance, as I believe in second chances for people,” Castor went on. “I had high hopes for Chief O’Connor, as she was off to such a strong start by reducing violent gun crime, proactively engaging with our community and focusing on officer wellness. But these accomplishments pale in comparison to the priority I place on integrity.”

Castor said Assistant Chief Lee Bercaw would remain as acting chief.

Summarizing the findings of the internal investigation, Bercaw wrote in a letter that O’Connor “used her official position and her badge for obtaining privileges, not otherwise available, in an attempt to avoid the issuance of a traffic citation. These actions compromised the professionalism, ethics, of the Police Chief and the City of Tampa.”

Castor announced Friday that O’Connor, 52, had been placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation into the incident.

In a one-page resignation letter to Castor, O’Connor, who was tapped for the job on Feb. 8 and was paid a salary of $192,920, said she was resigning “with great sadness.”

“I would never want my personal mistake to stand in the way of the progress I have made in mending relationships between the police department and the community, so for that reason, I am resigning,” O’Connor wrote.

Body camera video released Thursday shows Pinellas sheriff’s Deputy Larry Jacoby pulling over O’Connor and her husband, Keith, in a golf cart on Nov. 12 near East Lake Woodlands, a gated community in Oldsmar. Jacoby noted they were driving an unregistered vehicle on the road.

In the video, Keith O’Connor said they stopped to get food at a nearby restaurant and didn’t usually drive the cart on public roads. Mary O’Connor then asked Jacoby if his camera was on. He said it was.

“I’m the police chief in Tampa,” Mary O’Connor told him, and then a moment later handed over her badge and said, “I’m hoping you’ll just let us go tonight.”

Jacoby asked if they lived in East Lake Woodlands, and the couple said they did.

After exchanging pleasantries, Jacoby said they have “a lot of problems with golf carts around here.” Mary O’Connor handed over what appeared to be her business card, telling the deputy, “You ever need anything, call me.”

The episode started on a Saturday, Nov. 12, with few even knowing about it. Late last month, Creative Loafing Tampa Bay requested the body camera video of the incident from the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office. According to Bercaw’s letter, it wasn’t until Wednesday — 18 days after the incident and more than a week after Creative Loafing’s request for the video — that O’Connor first notified Castor of what happened. That came the same day the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office notified Creative Loafing that the video would be released the following day, Thursday.

Upon viewing the video on Thursday, Castor immediately ordered an internal affairs investigation.

Castor on Monday explained it this way: She said O’Connor received a call Wednesday notifying her about a public records request for the video. She then called Castor to walk her through the Nov. 12 incident. Asked if O’Connor’s failure to notify Castor about the incident after it happened factored in her decision to seek her resignation, Castor said no but acknowledged: “I would have liked to have prior notice.”

Castor spokesperson Adam Smith confirmed Monday that the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office called O’Connor to let her know the office was about to release the video.

O’Connor told the captain conducting the internal review that she identified herself as a police officer during the stop “for safety” but “admitted she made a mistake by further asking to be let go without a ticket,” according to Bercaw’s letter.

“Chief O’Connor advised she provided the deputy with her business card as she does with hundreds of citizens and law enforcement officers,” Bercaw wrote. “She added this action was not intended to give the deputy any type of preferential treatment.”

O’Connor said she owns the golf cart and “had limited knowledge of the laws involving golf carts.” O’Connor “took full responsibility for her actions, was very apologetic and regrets putting the deputy in a difficult position and pressuring him not to issue a citation,” Bercaw wrote.

In a statement last week, O’Connor said she apologized to Castor and wanted to apologize to residents.

“In hindsight, I realize how my handling of this matter could be viewed as inappropriate, but that was certainly not my intent,” O’Connor said.

The portion of Castor’s statement about giving O’Connor a second chance was a reference to O’Connor’s behavior — and subsequent arrest — during another traffic stop some three decades ago while she was a rookie Tampa officer.

In 1995, O’Connor was with her then-boyfriend, Keith O’Connor, also a Tampa police officer, when they were pulled over by a Hillsborough sheriff’s deputy. 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 and is now the city’s neighborhood enhancement manager.

O’Connor has said she was an immature person who made a terrible decision and then made the most of her second chance at a law enforcement career. She said the experience gave her valuable perspective.

In her resignation letter, O’Connor said that she became police chief 10 months ago “against all odds” and is “eternally grateful” to Castor and the city’s residents “for having faith in me to lead this department.”

She ticked off a list of actions she took as chief, such as hosting public forums and community roll calls in communities most affected by gun violence and securing more than $1 million in federal funding for crime prevention initiatives.

Many in the city opposed Castor’s decision to pick O’Connor out of three finalists, one of them interim Chief Ruben “Butch” Delgado, who has since left the department to take a job in the private sector. Some critics said Castor should have tapped Delgado, who was already doing the job, would add diversity to the city’s leadership and didn’t have any blemishes on his record. Many also said Castor should have made the search for the next chief more transparent and inclusive of the community’s input.

Castor said Monday that she would conduct a national search that would be “comprehensive” and “exhaustive” but does not yet have a timeline. It would not eliminate anyone currently in the department and it would take several months.

“It will be very inclusive, as well, bringing the candidates in for the community to meet, different organizations in the community, and the City Council,” Castor said.