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

Dec. 5, 2022 Updated Mon., Dec. 5, 2022 at 11:38 a.m.

A screenshot from video recorded by a Pinellas deputy's body camera on Nov. 12, 2022, shows Tampa police Chief Mary O'Connor and her husband, Keith, during a traffic stop. O'Connor identified herself as chief, pulled out her badge and asked the deputy to "just let us go" when told they'd been pulled over for not having a tag on the golf cart while he was driving on a public road.    (Screenshot from Pinellas Sheriff's Office body camera video, via Tampa Police Department/TNS)
A screenshot from video recorded by a Pinellas deputy's body camera on Nov. 12, 2022, shows Tampa police Chief Mary O'Connor and her husband, Keith, during a traffic stop. O'Connor identified herself as chief, pulled out her badge and asked the deputy to "just let us go" when told they'd been pulled over for not having a tag on the golf cart while he was driving on a public road.   (Screenshot from Pinellas Sheriff's Office body camera video, via Tampa Police Department/TNS)
By Tony Marrero Tampa Bay Times

TAMPA, Fla. — Tampa police Chief Mary O’Connor resigned Monday effective immediately after an investigation into a Pinellas County traffic stop where she flashed a badge and asked a deputy to “just let us go.”

Mayor Jane Castor asked for and received the resignation, Castor announced Monday in a news release. An internal review by the department’s Professional Standards Bureau found that O’Connor violated the department regulations on “standard of conduct” and “abuse of position or identification,” according to a disposition letter released along with Castor’s announcement.

“The Tampa Police Department has a code of conduct that includes high standards for ethical and professional behavior that apply to every member of our police force,” Castor said in a statement. “As the Chief of Police, you are not only to abide by and enforce those standards but to also lead by example. That clearly did not happen in this case.

“This is especially disappointing because I gave Mary O’Connor a second chance, as I believe in second chances for people. Which is one of the reasons that the disappointment today runs so deep,” Castor went on. “I had high hope for Chief O’Connor, as she was off to such a strong start by reducing violent gun crime, proactively engaging with our community and focusing on officer wellness. But these accomplishments pale in comparison to the priority I place on integrity.”

Castor said Assistant Chief Lee Bercaw would remain as acting chief.

“Chief O’Connor used her official position and her badge for obtaining privileges, not otherwise available, in an attempt to avoid the issuance of a traffic citation,” Bercaw wrote to Castor in the disposition letter summarizing the findings of the internal review. “These actions comprised (sic) the professionalism, ethics, of the Police Chief and the City of Tampa.”

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

In a one-page resignation letter to Castor, O’Connor, who was tapped for the job on Feb. 8, said she was resigning “with great sadness.”

“I would never want my personal mistake to stand in the way of the progress I have made in mending relationships between the police department and the community, so for that reason, I am resigning,” O’Connor wrote.

Body camera video released Thursday shows O’Connor identifying herself to a Pinellas County sheriff’s deputy as Tampa’s chief, pulling out her badge and asking the deputy to “just let us go” after she and her husband were pulled over in a golf cart in Oldsmar on Nov. 12. The deputy, who pulled over the O’Connors because the cart did not have a license plate, let them go without a citation.

Pinellas Deputy Larry Jacoby’s body camera footage showed him pulling over Keith O’Connor, who was driving a golf cart on a public road near Oldsmar’s East Lake Woodlands community. Jacoby noted they were driving an unregistered vehicle on the road.

In the video, Keith O’Connor said they stopped to get food at a nearby restaurant and they didn’t usually drive the cart on public roads. Mary O’Connor then asked Jacoby if his camera is on. He said it was.

“I’m the police chief in Tampa,” Mary O’Connor told him, and then a moment later handed over her badge and said, “I’m hoping you’ll just let us go tonight.”

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

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

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

“In hindsight, I realize how my handling of this matter could be viewed as inappropriate, but that was certainly not my intent,” O’Connor said. “I knew my conversation was on video, and my motive was not to put the deputy in an uncomfortable position. I have personally called the Pinellas County Sheriff offering to pay for any potential citation.”

The portion of Castor’s statement about giving O’Connor a second chance was a reference to O’Connor’s behavior — and subsequent arrest — during another traffic stop some three decades ago while she was a rookie Tampa officer.

In 1995, O’Connor was with her then-boyfriend Keith O’Connor, also a Tampa police officer, when they were pulled over by a Hillsborough sheriff’s deputy. Mary O’Connor, known then as Mary Minter, repeatedly disrupted deputies who were trying to give Keith O’Connor a sobriety test, and she was asked to sit in a patrol car to calm down, according to published reports and personnel records.

She kicked the windows and struck a deputy on the shoulder and chest with her fist. Deputies arrested Keith O’Connor on a drunken driving charge and Minter on charges of battery on a law enforcement officer, obstruction and disorderly intoxication. She pleaded no contest to misdemeanor charges of battery and obstruction. A judge withheld adjudication.

Both officers were suspended and then fired, but later reinstated. Both worked their way up to the top ranks of the department. Keith O’Connor retired in 2019 as an assistant chief and is now the city’s neighborhood enhancement manager.

O’Connor has said she was an immature person who made a terrible decision and then made the most of her second chance at a law enforcement career. She said the experience gave her valuable perspective that helped her as a cop and would help her as the department’s leader.

In her resignation letter, O’Connor said that she became police chief 10 months ago “against all odds” and is “eternally grateful” to Castor and the city’s residents “for having faith in me to lead this department.”

“I promised that I would serve the community I love to the best of my abilities, as I did for 22 years prior to my retirement, and I feel that I have done just that,” O’Connor wrote.

She ticked off a list of actions she took as chief, such as hosting public forums and community roll calls in communities most affected by gun violence and securing more than $1 million in federal funding for crime prevention initiatives.

“My focus on the wellness of both officers and the community will continue through my expansion of the police chaplaincy program, the creation of victim advocate and behavioral health clinician positions, the introduction of a certified therapy dog to the department, and many other endeavors that are still in the works.”

Many in the city opposed Castor’s decision to pick O’Connor out of three finalists, one of them interim Chief Ruben “Butch” Delgado, who has since left the department to take a job in the private sector. Some critics said Castor should have tapped Delgado, who was already doing the job, would add diversity to the city’s leadership and didn’t have any blemishes on his record. Many also said Castor should have made the search for the next chief more transparent and inclusive of the community’s input.

Castor’s news release announcing O’Connor’s resignation said the mayor has no firm deadline for selecting the next chief but expects that a national search and hiring process will take several months.

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