Although he’s effectively been on the job for nearly two weeks, Eric Ward did not officially become the current police chief in Tampa until Thursday morning, when the City Council unanimously confirmed his appointment. It came while dozens of his fellow TPD officers crammed into the Council’s intimate chambers to be part of the occasion.
The 48-year-old Ward grew up in East Tampa and has served in virtually every position in the department over the past 26 years. He served as an officer for more than a decade before his first promotion, to detective, in 2002. He made sergeant in 2004. Then lieutenant in 2009. He’s also served as a commander in the department’s SWAT and bomb teams.
He also spent part of his youth living in public housing.
He comes to office as the successor to Jane Castor, who served for the past five and a half years, where she generally received wide acclaim for helping to bring down the crime rate that began under previous chief Stephen Hogue. But that sterling reputation took a significant hit last month after the Tampa Bay Times reported that the TPD issued more than 2,000 bicycle citations in the past three years — more than Orlando, Miami, St. Pete and Jacksonville combined — with eight out of those 10 citations being to black cyclists.
That’s led the city to ask for the U.S. Justice Department to review those policies, something that Ward said again today he looks forward to.
But Ward, like Castor before him, has refused the entreaties by groups such as the ACLU to halt the bike citation policy until the DOJ completes that review.
“We want a full investigation as to whether racial profiling has occurred, or civil violations have occurred,” said the ACLU’s Joyce Hamilton Henry this morning. Like other advocates, the ACLU is unhappy that it’s the Justice Department’s COPS program that is doing the review of the TPD, calling for a more thorough review of the entire department’s practices, as the DOJ did in Ferguson, Mo., and is currently conducting in Baltimore.
Hamilton Henry also referenced not only the Times report, but also a recent Channel 10 story that determined that 54 percent of all TPD arrests in 2013 were of black men and women, though blacks make up just 26 percent of the city’s population.
“We are concerned about this cloud over the city’s head,” Hamilton Henry said, adding that the ACLU looks forward to working with Chief Ward on the issue.
West Tampa resident Joe Robinson agreed with Hamilton Henry, saying that a Justice Department review of patterns and practices as is being done in Baltimore is “the only review that counts.” He said that the word on the street in West Tampa is that the bike citations of black cyclists has “slowed down,” in recent weeks.
Robinson also said that he hopes that the new chief can help bring PAL football back to West Tampa.
The Rev. Russell Meyer from St. Paul Lutheran Church in Seminole Heights said the selection of Ward as new chief turns a page in the city. He urged Ward to make Tampa Police Department arrest statistics available for the public’s consumption.
Although both Council Chair Frank Reddick and councilwoman Lisa Montelione appeared at a press conference with activists who were calling on the Council to delay the confirmation of Ward unless he called for the current bicycle citation policy to cease, that was never an issue today. Montelione wasn’t at the meeting, and Reddick simply asked him about the DOJ’s review before embracing his selection.