Jane Castor and John Bennett were appointed Chief of Police and Assistant Chief of Operations in 2009. Castor is in her 29th year with TPD, Bennett in his 27th. Before their appointments to the top spots, they already knew each other well.
"Post 9/11," says Bennett, "the Chief was over at the Intelligence Unit, and she would give me some guidance about trying to gin it up at the local level. She allowed me to set up a unit that worked closely with Homeland Security and Event Management, and then I went to work for the Chief when she became Assistant Chief of Patrol and took that whole other experience into crime-fighting."
Looking back on the RNC, Castor says she's relieved it's over, but proud.
"To have the lack of arrests is quite an accomplishment," she says. "To have that many officers — 3,500 from a number of agencies throughout the state — come together and work for four days and [get] absolutely nothing but praise and compliments for the level of professionalism, courteousness, and helpfulness, I think that is what makes me the most proud… the fact that the officers came together and showed that we have the best law enforcement in the nation in the state of Florida."
Bennett looks back with particular pride on the training regimen that prepared officers for the event.
"My counterpart, Colonel Duncan [with Hillsborough County], traveled to all the different sheriff agencies and spoke about the way we police in Tampa and Hillsborough County to make sure that everybody coming here understood that they’d have to be open to how we do our mission," Bennett says. "It really came home to me when the Chief and the Mayor [were] doing the town hall meetings and when [they] collectively said this event will be successful if it’s not a security event.
"The Executive Steering Committee… led by the Chief and the Sheriff, talked immensely about the idea that our boundary was… the criminal level of destroying property or hurting others," Bennett continues. "Other than that we’re here to protect the political process. It’s not just a matter of allowing the free speech, you actually have to protect it, and we wrote that in our mission statement and we wrote that in our training curriculum purposefully to make sure that we knew where that boundary was, and we had the support and the latitude from the Chief and the Mayor to operate in a way to give that flexibility… The Chief reminds us that discretion is our biggest tool in our toolbox and she allowed us to use that, as well as the sheriff, and that’s what really gave us the ability to do what we did."
Castor says TPD's approach was unique from past conventions in that "we met with the groups and tried to figure out what their goal was: What do you want to accomplish? And then if it was at all possible, we allowed them to accomplish their goal and that worked. In the past I think it was more of a confrontation between demonstrators and law enforcement, and what we showed was that’s not necessary. Everyone can achieve their goals and accomplish what they set forward to do as long as it doesn’t cross over into criminal activity, and that's what we clearly communicated with all demonstrators and it worked very well for us.
"We put a great deal into training the officers, we had to have them tactically sound if there was any civil disorder, but on the other hand, we wanted them to be open to the demonstrations and do anything they could to facilitate that political process. We had a portion of that training that said, 'Don’t be that guy' and showed the officers some of the past techniques and actions that had caused confrontation and resulted in a very negative image of law enforcement."
The Chief and Assistant Chief spent a lot of time together during the RNC.
"Probably more than he wanted," jokes Castor. "We pretty much spent four days together." But the feedback was worth it. "We got positive feedback from everyone — from our residents, delegates, protesters, very well-received."
She won't say TPD did any better or worse than police departments have done in past conventions, but she's willing to share what her department learned. "I wouldn’t pass judgment on any [other] law enforcement agency, because we didn’t have the numbers of demonstrators that may or may not have allowed our process to be as effective as it was. So it worked for us and we certainly would support any other agency that wanted to learn from what we did."
The relatively small size of the TPD, and the fact they had to bring in outside officers, may have worked to the department's advantage, says Bennett.
"One of our biggest challenges was we had a myriad of agencies. We used to say we were a bit of an underdog in this situation because we had to outsource a lot of support, whereas in NY and Chicago it was all internal. But maybe the benefit to us in that equation was that we really had to get out of the box in training and front-load our philosophies, where it may be assumed in larger agencies. So in a way it was an accidental positive for us."