Tampa police Chief Mary O’Connor placed on leave amid investigation into traffic stop

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TAMPA — Tampa Mayor Jane Castor on Friday placed police Chief Mary O’Connor on administrative leave 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 asking the deputy to “just let us go” after she and her husband were pulled over in a golf cart in Oldsmar on Nov. 12. The deputy, who pulled over the O’Connors because the cart 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 once again thrown into turmoil a leader whose tenure became mired in controversy as soon as Castor announced she had picked O’Connor for the position from among three finalists in February. Some residents, community leaders and City Council members thought Castor made a mistake by selecting 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 both were rookie officers at the time, were arrested, fired then later reinstated.

Yvette Lewis, president of the NAACP Hillsborough branch, said O’Connor should be asked to resign.

“You see how (law enforcement) look after 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 see and say something. They see something and close their mouths 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 notes they’re driving an unregistered vehicle on the road.

Keith O’Connor says they stopped to get food at a nearby restaurant and they don’t usually drive the cart on public roads. Mary O’Connor asks Jacoby if his camera is on. He says it is.

“I’m the police chief in Tampa,” Mary O’Connor says, and then a moment later hands over her badge and says, “I’m hoping 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 problems with golf carts around here.” Mary O’Connor hands over what appears to be her business card, telling 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.

“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. “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 offering 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 stop and the timing of the city of Tampa’s release of the video and statements from O’Connor and Mayor Jane Castor raise a range of questions, including when and how Castor found out about the incident.

Creative Loafing Tampa Bay reported that it received a tip about the stop and weeks ago asked the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office for the video. About the same time the Sheriff’s Office provided the video, the paper reported, the Tampa Police Department issued a news release with the video and statements from O’Connor and Castor.

Crystal Clark, public information 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 O’Connor volunteered the information to the public through her statement in the new release “in the interest of transparency and accountability.”

Clark said the news release would have been issued sooner but the public information office was working “multiple active scenes” on Thursday, including the effort to arrest former Tampa Bay Bucs player Antonio Brown and a crash that seriously injured a Tampa police officer.

The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office’s public information officers did not respond to questions Friday. A spokesperson said Thursday that Jacoby’s handling of the traffic stop was not under review.

Council members reached Friday agreed that O’Connor should be placed on leave pending an investigation.

In a text message exchange Friday, Council member Bill Carlson, who was one of two council members who voted against O’Connor, said Castor “needs to bring civility, ethics, transparency and accountability back to City Hall” and said “the next selection process” for the city’s police chief need to 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 job.”

Council member Joe Citro agreed with Castor’s move.

“We need to have accountability for all,” he said.

Council member Luis Viera said what he has learned so far about the incident is “disappointing and distressing.”

“This demands transparency with the administration on all that happened and accountability if the investigation makes adverse findings,” Viera said. “The detailed investigation should be as expeditious as possible so we can have a prompt resolution and move forward.”

Council member 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 work out and I hope it works out for her, however it works out,” he said.

Council Chairman Guido Maniscalco, Charlie Miranda and Lynn Hurtak did not respond to messages Friday.

Richard Gonzmart, a Tampa restaurateur and philanthropist who had supported 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 proved to be a good Chief of Police who committed a human error,” Gonzmart said in a text message. “Mary O’Connor is not perfect and neither am I.”

Brian Higgins, a former police chief in New Jersey and adjunct lecturer at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said he thinks 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 familiar with O’Connor’s past arrest. That history, he said, could influence how some view the more recent traffic stop incident.

“When you’re in a position like that, you need 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 cops have threatened officers who pulled them over, or even gotten into fights. And he said officers like the Pinellas deputy have discretion to decide how to respond during traffic stops. He likened the interaction to a parent asking an officer for leniency while rushing to pick up their kids.

“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 action.

“If I were the chief, I’d be worried about my credibility with the rank and file when it comes to conduct in general, how we carry ourselves in public both in and out of uniform,” Dugan said.

Times staff writers Natalie Weber and Matt Cohen contributed to this report.