Tampa Cannot Afford Castor Disaster

 

By Angel D’Angelo, guest contributor

Former Police Chief Jane Castor has announced her bid to run for Mayor of Tampa in 2019.

She’s certainly a tempting candidate. Tampa’s first woman and first gay police chief, a 30 some year veteran of the police form and a staple in the community. But what does her legacy say about her work? In her own words, “it’s up to the public to determine what kind of job I’ve done as Chief.”

Originally hired as a police officer in 1983, Castor elevated to the role of police chief in 2009 and held the role until 2015, when she retired from the position, amidst much controversy.

It was a Tuesday,  7:30 at night in the warmth of May, 2014 in Tampa. A simple Knollwood Street home. Sleeping on the couch, 29-year-old Jason Wescott is awoken to the sounds of his home being barged in by what may be intruders. Fearing for his safety, Wescott grabbed hold of his firearm but had not a moment to fire the gun.

“The officers have a split second to make a decision when faced with somebody who’s armed,” Castor said. A familiar line to anyone who’s followed any story involving the police and shooting.

Wescott’s home wasn’t broken into by your run of the mill intruder. Instead, it was the armed tactical police force, performing a raid based on a drug tip. Wescott was pronounced dead that evening and his partner, Israel Reyes, was arrested.

More alarmingly, Wescott only purchased the gun after the advice of the Tampa Police Department, under Castor. That’s right–the same Tampa Police Department that later took his life “fearing for their lives” are the very reason Wescott had the gun in the first place.

Months before, Wescott called the police fearful that someone was going to rob him and do him harm. A stranger partying at his house asked to borrow his phone and used it to message two other men, threatening to rob Wescott and possibly kill him. The police department’s response: if anyone invades your home, grab a gun and shoot to kill.

Someone did invade his home. And he did attempt to shoot. But his intruder was the Tampa Police Department who shot to kill.

Originally, the police spokes personnel told the public that a neighbor of Wescott’s had complained about cannabis sales occurring out of the quiet Knollwood home. But that was a lie. In actuality, a paid police informant had made a series of purchases of cannabis from Wescott over the course of months, amounting to approximately $200. As a result of the informant’s work, Wescott became a target to an intensive drug investigation.

At the scene of his death, there was, in fact, cannabis found. Exactly 0.2 grams which was approximately $2 worth. For $2, Wescott lost his life. As per usual, the State Attorney’s Office did not prosecute and found the shooting to be justified.  (Fortunately, voters had the last say: Mark Ober was replaced by Andrew Warren in 2016).

So did Chief Castor, “Mr. Wescott lost his life because he aimed a loaded firearm at police officers. You can take the entire marijuana [sic] issue out of the picture–if there’s an indication that there is armed trafficking going on–someone selling narcotics [sic] while they are armed or have the ability to use a firearm–then the tactical response team will do the critical entry.”

A St. Petersburg-based media entity was unable to find any calls to police to neighbors to report any crime, which is where public records requests led to the information that a paid police informant had been used.

But why would the department lie about this and say a neighbor had been the initial reporter? Perhaps because informants had a bad reputation while under Castor. Rita Girven was one of the most notorious informants, so well-liked by the department that the Chief is seen posing with her in a selfie.

Girven was responsible for up to 150 cases but was later found to be involved in a major corruption scandal so egregious that prosecutors may have had to drop charges against the 30 to 50 people she helped to imprison.

Girven wasn’t the only one in on the corruption; the corruption involved three other department personnel, all of whom eventually vacated their positions.

“The citations were a mistake,” says the Mayoral candidate in 2018, just as she announced her bid.

In 2015, the Department of Justice ran a scathing review of the department’s stop and frisk policy that was implemented regarding biking in the City limits, popularly known as the biking while black report.

She says it’s a mistake now but at the time she said the stop and frisk policy was a sound policy, “This is not a coincidence–many individuals receiving bike citations are involved in criminal activity.”

Eight out of ten, or 80%, of all bicycle related citations, ranging from riding the bike with hands removed from handlebars, wearing saggy clothing and/or bike light issues, were remitted to black residents, despite the fact that black residents only encompass 26% of the City’s entire population.

The amount of biking citations far exceeded those in comparable cities such as Jacksonville, Orlando, Miami, St. Petersburg and Orlando.

Castor’s department’s racial disparity does not end at bicycling. Each year in her ranks, black residents accounted for more than half of the City’s total arrests, despite only accounting for 26% of the City’s population. In 2009, her department’s arrests accounted for 53% black, dropping only one percent in 2010.

It went back to 53% in 2010 and increased to 54% throughout the rest of her time up to 2015 as Chief. The problem still persists today but Castor had a role and responsibility as leader to stop these disparities and chose not to.

The idea of electing a candidate, one who lives at the intersection of gay and woman, may be appealing. But one should not be so starstruck when that candidate led a corrupt department, full of scandal, overpolicing of poor and marginalized communities and disparities in citations and arrests across the board. Castor should not slide in with our votes if she cannot atone for her wrongdoings.

We do not need a “it is a mistake” analysis. We do not need comments like, “Given the hindsight, we wouldn’t have used [stop and frisk].”

Lives were destroyed under her leadership and undoubtedly community activists called it out–it’s a question of whether or not she listened thoroughly.

Her legacy could have been different; she could have supported measures like restorative justice. She could have implemented robust implicit bias training and comprehensive cultural competency training for her staff. She could have enforced sound and steady body camera policies in a sense that hold the officers accountable but do not spy on the community. She could have worked to implement external review processes to work through the internal corruption in her department. But she did not.

Castor was a lead general in the war on drugs and a keyholder to maintaining marginalization of the poor and people of color among the community.

 

Angel D’Angelo is co-founder of the Restorative Justice Coalition.

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