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

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

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

Mayor Jane Castor said Monday she requested and received O’Connor’s resignation after a review by the department’s Internal Affairs Office found O’Connor violated department policies on ” standards of conduct” and “abuse of position or identification”.

“The Tampa Police Department has a Code of Conduct that includes high standards of ethical and professional behavior that apply to every member of our police force,” Castor said in a statement. “As chief of police, you must not only uphold and uphold these standards, but also lead by example. This obviously did not happen in this case.

Castor in the statement, it was “unacceptable for a public servant, and in particular the city’s top law enforcement official, to seek special treatment because of his position.”

“It’s particularly disappointing because I gave Mary O’Connor a second chance because I believe in second chances for people.” Castor continued. “I had high hopes for Chief O’Connor because she was off to such a good start in reducing violent gun crime, proactively engaging with our community, and focusing on the well-being of officers, but these accomplishments pale in comparison to the priority I place on integrity.

Castor said deputy chief Lee Bercaw will remain acting chief.

Summarizing the findings of the internal investigation, Bercaw wrote in a letter that O’Connor “used his official position and badge to obtain privileges, not otherwise available, for the purpose of avoiding the issuance of a ticket. These actions compromised the professionalism and ethics of the police chief and the city of Tampa.

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

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

“I would never want my personal error to hinder the progress I have made in repairing the relationship between the police department and the community, so for that reason, I am stepping down,” O’Connor wrote.

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

Tampa Police Chief Mary O'Connor speaks during a news conference Oct. 24 at department headquarters.
Tampa Police Chief Mary O’Connor speaks during a news conference Oct. 24 at department headquarters. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
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In the video, Keith O’Connor said they stopped to get food from a nearby restaurant and usually don’t drive the cart on public roads. Mary O’Connor then asked Jacoby if her camera was on. He said yes.

“I’m Tampa’s police chief,” Mary O’Connor told her, then a moment later she handed her badge over and said, “I hope you’ll let us go tonight.”

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

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

The episode started on a Saturday, November 12, with few even knowing it. Late last month, Creative Loafing Tampa Bay requested 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 requested the video — that O’Connor first told Castor what happened. had passed. It came the same day the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office notified Creative Loafing that the video would be released the next day, Thursday.

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

Castor explained it Monday this way: She said O’Connor received a call Wednesday informing her of a public records request for the video. She then called Castor to explain the November 12 incident. When asked if O’Connor’s failure to tell Castor about the incident after it happened factored into his decision to seek his resignation, Castor said no but acknowledged: “I wish I had notice.”

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

O’Connor told the captain in charge of the internal review that she identified herself as a police officer during the stop “for security reasons”, but “admitted that she made a mistake in further asking to be released without a ticket,” according to Bercaw’s letter.

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

O’Connor said she owned the golf cart and “had limited knowledge of the laws regarding golf carts.” O’Connor “took full responsibility for her actions, apologized and regretted putting the deputy in a difficult position and pressuring him not to issue a subpoena,” he said. writes Bercaw.

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

“In hindsight, I realize how improper my handling of this case could be considered inappropriate, but that was certainly not my intention,” O’Connor said.

The part of Castor’s statement about giving O’Connor a second chance referred to O’Connor’s behavior – and his subsequent arrest – during another traffic stop some three decades ago. , when she was a rookie from Tampa.

In 1995, O’Connor was with her then-boyfriend, Keith O’Connor, also a Tampa police officer, when they were arrested by a Hillsborough sheriff’s deputy. Mary O’Connor, known then as Mary Minter, repeatedly disrupted MPs attempting to give Keith O’Connor a sobriety test, and was asked to sit in a squad car to calm down, according to published reports and personal records.

She kicked windows and punched a deputy in the shoulder and chest with her fist. Deputies arrested Keith O’Connor for drunk driving and Minter for assaulting a law enforcement officer, obstruction and disorderly intoxication. She did not contest the misdemeanor charges of assault and obstruction. A judge upheld the decision.

Both officers were suspended and later fired, but later reinstated. Both rose through the ranks to the highest echelons of the department. Keith O’Connor retired in 2019 as Deputy Chief and is now the City’s Director of Neighborhood Improvement.

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

In her resignation letter, O’Connor said she became police chief 10 months ago “against all odds” and was “eternally grateful” to Castor and the townspeople “for believing in me to lead this department”.

She ticked off a list of actions she has taken as leader, such as organizing public forums and community roll calls in communities most affected by gun violence and getting more $1 million in federal funding for crime prevention initiatives.

Many townspeople objected to Castor’s decision to choose O’Connor from three finalists, including acting chief Ruben “Butch” Delgado, who has since left the department to take a job in the private sector. Some critics said Castor should have brought in Delgado, who was already doing the work, would add diversity to the city’s leadership and had no blemish on his record. Many also said Castor should have made the search for the next leader more transparent and inclusive of community input.

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

“It will also be very inclusive, bringing candidates together for the community to meet, different community organizations and the city council,” Castor said.

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