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Tampa Police Chief O'Connor resigns after probe into golf cart traffic stop

Woman in police uniform speaks at a podium. A TV monitor and the Florida flag are in the background.
Tampa Police Department
Mary O'Connor is introduced as Tampa's new police chief on March 25,2022. O'Connor resigned just over eight months later after an internal investigation into a traffic stop involving O'Connor and her husband.

An internal investigation found that Mary O’Connor violated regulations involving “standard of conduct” and “abuse of position or identification” after she and her husband were pulled over.

Tampa Police Chief Mary O'Connor resigned Monday after an internal investigation determined she used her “position of authority” to avoid a citation during a traffic stop in November.

Assistant Chief Lee Bercaw, a 25-year veteran of the department, will serve as acting chief while a comprehensive national search is conducted for a replacement, Mayor Jane Castor announced.

Castor requested and received O'Connor's resignation, according to a news release from the city. The move comes less than eight months after O’Connor was sworn in.

The investigation found that O’Connor violated department regulations involving “standard of conduct” and “abuse of position or identification” when she and her husband, Keith O’Connor, were pulled over as he drove a golf cart without a license plate in their Oldsmar neighborhood Nov. 12.

"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 the news release, addressing O’Connor. “ 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.

“It is unacceptable for any public employee, and especially the city's top law enforcement leader, to ask for special treatment because of their position. Public trust in Tampa's police department is paramount to our success as a city and community.”

'I made a mistake,' O'Connor tells internal investigators

According to the internal investigation report, a Pinellas County deputy initiated the traffic stop at 7:24 p.m., and both the chief and her husband were cooperative.

However, O'Connor identified and showed her badge, and said, ‘I am hoping you will let us go tonight.’ She also gave the deputy her business card and stated, "If you ever need anything, call me - serious."

The deputy “cleared the stop with a verbal warning.”

O’Connor told internal investigators that said she identified herself as a police officer for “safety,” but admitted “she made a mistake by further asking to be let go without a ticket.”

Chief O'Connor also said handed over the business card “as she does with hundreds of citizens and law enforcement officers.” And it was not intended to give the deputy any type of preferential treatment.

O'Connor advised that she owned the golf cart and that it was not registered. “Furthermore, she had limited knowledge of the laws involving golf carts,” the investigators reported.

“Chief O'Connor took full responsibility for her actions, was very apologetic, and regrets putting the deputy in a difficult position and pressuring him not to issue a citation,” the investigators wrote.

O’Connor told investigators that she called Castor on Nov. 30 to officially report the incident and provide body camera video from the deputy.

She received a second chance

O'Conner, 51, was sworn in as Tampa's 43rd police chief in March, but her selection by Castor, also a former Tampa police chief, was not without controversy.

Questions were initially raised about O’Connor’s background when she was named as one of the three finalists for the job. O'Connor had been fired from the department in 1996 — her first year on the force at age 24 — following an arrest when her future husband was stopped for drunken driving.

O'Connor kicked the windows of a patrol car and punched a deputy. She pleaded no contest to misdemeanor charges of battery and obstruction.

Then known as Mary Minter, she was fired from the department, but was rehired in 1996 on a “last chance” status, according to The Tampa Tribune. She then climbed the ranks until her retirement as assistant chief in 2016. She had served as a law enforcement trainer and consultant before her appointment as chief.

Castor, who placed O’Connor on administrative leave on Friday, said she was “especially” disappointed because O’Connor received a second chance.

“I believe in second chances for people, which is one of the reasons that the disappointment today runs so deep,” Castor said. “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.”

No timetable for finding a replacement

In her resignation letter, O’Connor wrote that she did not want the incident to distract from the department’s work.

“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.

“I am eternally grateful to you and the residents of Tampa 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 retirement, and I feel that I've done just that.”

Castor gave no timetable to hiring a new chief. She believes, until then, she has a competent temporary replacement.

"In Lee Bercaw, we have a thoughtful and highly regarded leader in progressive policing,” Castor said. “I am grateful he can hit the ground running and continue working with our community to keep our city safe.”

According to the city, Bercaw has worked in every Tampa neighborhood, has been a key force in developing proactive crime reduction strategies and has experience directing security for large Tampa events, such as Super Bowls and Gasparilla. He holds a doctorate in criminal justice from Saint Leo University and a master’s degree in criminal justice administration.

Information from WUSF’s Mark Schreiner and Carl Lisciandrello was used in this report.

I’m the online producer for Health News Florida, a collaboration of public radio stations and NPR that delivers news about health care issues.