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Tampa must look for new police chief as Eric Ward steps down

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

After just a little more than two years on the job, Tampa Police Chief Eric Ward is leaving the force for a position with Coca-Cola Beverages Florida as head of security.

“It was not an easy decision for me to make, and it was something that I did not take very lightly,” the 50-year-old soft-spoken chief said at a news conference Thursday at TPD headquarters to announce his departure.

“It’s a great opportunity,” Ward said after he was asked why he is stepping down after a relatively short career as chief.

“It’s a sad day for the city, but it’s a great day for Chief Ward,” said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn.

Ward is a local kid who did well. Growing up in East Tampa, he held virtually every position in the Department before appointed chief two years ago. He was an officer for more than a decade until his first promotion to detective in 2002. He then became a sergeant in 2004, a lieutenant in 2009 and also served as commander in the Department’s SWAT and bomb teams.

At Thursday’s news conference, Buckhorn said that when Ward took over the TPD — succeeding Jane Castor in May 2015 — the Department was “already the envy of the nation.”

But that was not quite the case.

When Ward replaced Castor, it was amid intense scrutiny of the TPD, after the Tampa Bay Times reported on a disproportionate number of citations written in April 2015 to black Tampa residents riding bikes. The Times story ultimately resulted in a Justice Department investigation, which concluded in early 2016 that the TPD policy of stopping and citing black bicyclists was not discriminatory.

The report said that TPD policies had a disparate impact on people of color riding bikes in Tampa, and “it would also strain the relationship between the police and the community.”

At the time, both Castor and other TPD supporters downplayed the story, just as Ward did Thursday.

When asked about race relations, Ward replied: “I don’t think we really had an issue here in Tampa … When I took over it was perception. And just because you see things around the country doesn’t really mean that it affects us in Tampa.”

“We went through a process when there were perceived issues … and we addressed those issues,” he added. “As a community, we built on that and moved forward.”

In the wake of the “biking-while-black” episode, the City Council asked Ward for additional effort to make the TPD more racially diverse.

On Thursday, Ward said those efforts have gone well.

“We’ve forced on recruiting at some of our historic black universities and colleges; we’ve put together a recruitment team to go out in the community as well, and we’ve visited some of our local churches,” he said.

The shakeout of the biking while black story also resulted in the creation of a citizens review board, though it’s limited scope has frustrated some members of the community who advocated for it.

As for what was the toughest part of his job as chief, Ward said it was that he was expected to speak to so many different groups throughout the city, which didn’t always leave a lot of time for getting out to other parts of the community.

“Everybody wants to see you, and sometimes that gets a little taxing because you want to get out into the community, you want to interact with the community and talk to the people,” he said. “The more you get out, the more you interact with the community, the more they’re going to trust you. And that’s really important to me.”

Assistant Police Chief Brian Dugan will take over the job on an interim basis until a new chief is selected. In addition to assistant chief, Dugan was previously a major in charge of the criminal investigations division and a captain overseeing special operations. In 2012, he trained officers from other agencies to provide security during the Republican National Convention.

Dugan also was the incident director during the daily (and nightly) protests by Occupy Tampa in 2011.

A finalist for the job back in 2015, Dugan said Thursday he will again apply for the job.

Buckhorn said he will conduct a national search that could take up to three or four months before he finds a successor to Ward. He says that already has had an initial conversation with PERF, the Police Executive Research Forum, a national organization that helps cities screen potential police chiefs.

The mayor said he’ll look for a “progressive style of leadership.”

Ward is expected to stay on for a few more weeks, though there is not s final day set for his departure. Buckhorn said Ward informed him around a month ago about the new opportunity.

 

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Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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