Tampa City Council just learned that the mayor's controversial pick for police chief is already running the department

"It's Mary O'Connor. She was hired on February 8," Bennett said.

click to enlarge Mary O'Connor speaks during a press conference announcing her new role as police chief next to Assistant Chief Lee Bercaw and Mayor Castor. - Justin Garcia
Justin Garcia
Mary O'Connor speaks during a press conference announcing her new role as police chief next to Assistant Chief Lee Bercaw and Mayor Castor.
At today's City Council meeting, Mayor Castor's Chief of Staff John Bennett attempted to address widespread concerns over police chief Mary O'Connor, who was selected by Castor on Feb. 8 but has yet to be confirmed by council members.

But by the end, several councilmen were unconvinced, and more concerns were raised.

During the meeting, Bennett said that O'Connor has been running the Tampa Police Department (TPD) since Castor hosted a press conference with her on Feb. 8, despite a critical lack of support from council and the community.

Since O'Connor's appointment by Castor, questions have swirled around the choice for her as new chief for TPD.  Several councilmen said their phones haven't stopped ringing and their email inboxes have been flooded since the nomination, with constituents upset about the selection.

A lot of people wanted Ruben "Butch" Delgado, Tampa's former interim police chief to get the job, others are concerned about O'Connor's past felony arrest for assault on a fellow law enforcement officer. Some who spoke at today's public comment section brought up O'Connor's involvement in the controversial policing program "biking while Black" when she served on the force before she retired in 2016.
But despite the citywide outcry, Bennett told council that O'Connor started running the department nine days ago. Gudes had asked Bennett who was currently running the day-to-day operations of TPD, because he and other council members had not been informed.

"It's Mary O'Connor. She was hired on February 8," Bennett said.

At the Feb. 8 press conference Castor claimed that council still had to approve O'Connor, and that, "she could start as early as next week," not indicating that O'Connor had started the job that day.

During his comments on Castor's chief selection, Gudes highlighted problems with the process, which has disrupted his and other councilmen's lives.

"We can't sugarcoat what this is," said Councilchair Orlando Gudes. "We have a city in chaos right now...people are upset about the process."

When Castor appointed O'Connor as chief, the councilmen said that none of them had yet met with her. They only got the opportunity after the mayor selected—and hired her.

Bennett and City Attorney Gina Grimes explained that city charter section 6.03 says Castor has 90 days from Feb. 8 to submit O'Connor as chief to council; after the submission council has 15 days to vote on her. This means that O'Connor could potentially spend more than 100 days running the department before a vote on her confirmation happens.

Since the conference, all of the councilmen have met her, with different takes on their meetings. But councilmen Joe Citro, Guido Maniscalco and Bill Carlson were all explicit about a lack of community support for the chief.
"I just met the candidate a couple days ago she was very nice, experienced, very direct. If the communication continued like it did the other day, I think that would be positive," Carlson said. "However, just like you've heard in front of city council numerous times, including this morning, and maybe this afternoon, we reverse course because of what the community says."

Carlson elaborated further and said that when council has the community line up in front of them and they receive a large amount of emails and calls, it affects their decision making.

He said that his constituents want former Interim Chief Butch Delgado, although he doesn't have a preference either way. He wrapped up his comments by saying the administration shouldn't try to sell the community, and should instead respect the concerns.

"My recommendation is, instead of selling the public and forcing the public to to agree with a certain candidate, talk to the public but if ultimately they're not convinced pick a different candidate," Carlson said.

Councilman Viera reiterated that he, along with a lot of his constituents wanted Delgado. But he added that he met O'Connor and considered her a "very nice woman." Still, he suggested speaking with and listening to the community more. He applauded O'Connor for appearing on WTMP to address questions from the public.

"That's the right way to go," he said. "Go talk to the community."

Joseph Citro—who has said publicly that he didn't know if he could confirm O'Connor and raised more concerns during the meeting—called for a vote today on her confirmation, but Viera argued that he wasn't ready to vote on confirmation yet.

Bennett said that O'Connor was the better choice over Delgado to address rising crime in the city. He repeated the argument twice during the meeting.

"We also have had an uptick in violent crime and we've also have to examine our community policing model in a very extreme way to get into the neighborhoods," Bennett said. "Which has really been the last thing that I always look at is, is equity in every neighborhood."

Creative Loafing Tampa Bay asked the city communication's director Adam Smith several questions about the situation, including why Bennett said O'Connor started on the eighth, while Castor said something different, but haven't yet received an answer. This post will be updated if one comes in.
During the meeting, Gudes addressed O'Connor's past felony arrest for battery on a law enforcement officer, saying he "believes in second chances." He held onto his stance that the process was more about city council members having clear communication with the administration about the Mayor's chief selection.

"You want to tell Ms Grimes and the chief [Bennett] what you really want to tell, but you want to be respectful," Gudes said. "And I respect you for that, but you also have to stand up and tell the truth. That's why I brought them here, so you could tell them how you truly feel."