As expected, police chief is veteran Tampa officer

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn spoke to a crowded house at a press conference on the main floor of the Tampa Police Department's headquarters in downtown Tampa today.

Most cheered his announcement that Assistant Police Chief Eric Ward, a 26-year veteran and East Tampa native, will serve as the city's next police chief.

"Our next chief is a product of this community, and product of a neighborhood where perhaps becoming a police officer was not looked upon too favorably," Buckhorn said. "He is the product of Tampa schools, he has moved through the ranks and served ably through every job he has ever been given at the Tampa Police Department. Not just ably, but he excelled."

The conference seemed to start out as more of a send-off for his well-liked predecessor than an introduction to Ward. Current Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor, who has been in her position since 2010, is retiring early next month. While Buckhorn spoke highly of Ward, he also said he lamented Castor's departure.

"For the last five years and certainly for the last four years of my first term, this department has been ably led by what I think is one of the best police chiefs in America," Buckhorn said. "She has guided this department through some very, very good times, some amazing drops in in crime, to safer neighborhoods, to a department that's more culturally diverse, and is more reflective of this amazing city we live in. She has done so with dignity and grace."

Castor said she'll miss her role, but she's happy to see Eric ascend.

"Eric is the perfect choice to lead the Tampa Police into the future." Castor said. "He has the experience, the knowledge, the leadership ability and the temperament for this job. But mostly, he has the best interest of the community at heart. And Eric has very big heart ... and I have no doubt he will be successful in the days, weeks, months and years to come."

Ward, the second African American police chief in the city's history, is from East Tampa. He ascends to the position at a tense time for the department, a time when a recent Tampa Bay Times story revealed a police program that unfairly targets African Americans on bicycles, and a time when cities across the county are dealing with cases of police violence against black men.

Ward is a 26-year veteran on the department who spent some of his childhood in public housing, and said he aims to bridge the gap between police and predominantly black, low-income communities.

"Every day over the last 26 years I've come to work looking for that opportunity to bridge that gap between law enforcement and the community, which I believe has prepared me for the next step in my career, which is to be your chief of police," he said.

He said the three things he wants to focus on as chief are community outreach, which the department carries out to some extent through programs like the Police Athletic League, reducing violent crime and training of police officers.

"There's a lot of work to be done, and I'm looking forward to the challenge," he said.

After the conference, he spoke to a cluster of reporters, most of whom wanted to know what his thoughts were on targeting people for "biking while black" in areas like Sulphur Springs and East Tampa.

"We're number two in the nation for fatalities, pedestrian fatalities, and that's a good program," he said. "The key to the program is education. So our goal is to educate most of the bicyclists that we come into contact with."

He said he doesn't agree that the practice is unfair, and if the U.S. Department of Justice, which is investigating the department's policy on cyclists, deems it unfair, he'd be happy to change it.

"We don't see any issues with our current process," he said. "We enforce the violations equally throughout the city. What we're waiting on is that evaluation. That'll give us a true measure of our practices. And if we find any discrepancies I'll act on them immediately."

But that could pose a challenge for him. The Tampa City Council still has to vote to approve him, and at least one member — Council Chair Frank Reddick — has said he would not support Ward if he did not promise to suspend the practice until the department was cleared by the DOJ investigation.

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