With four unresolved murders in the past six weeks, tensions in Southeast Seminole Heights have never been higher.
Among some black residents, there’s even more anxiety, with many complaining about increased surveillance in the community — and that was before the Tampa Police Department announced earlier this week that the chief suspect is a black male.
That served as a backdrop Thursday night when Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan addressed the Hillsborough County branch of the NAACP at the Seminole Heights Branch Library.
Dugan acknowledged his department is, in fact, convinced the suspect has only killed two of the four people shot in the neighborhood since October 9.
“We believe that this person definitely murdered Ben Mitchell and Ronald Felton,” he said, referring to the first and fourth persons killed in the still-unresolved killing spree. “We’re not sure enough to say that he was able to murder Monica Hoffa and Anthony Naiboa, so it could be someone else who murdered those two.”
Undeniably, police presence in the neighborhood is higher, and arrests have spiked — 150 in the area in the last month. That’s up from 56 in October 2016, and 126 in October 2015. Motorists are now being pulled over for making rolling stops, a move that Dugan admitted normally the TPD wouldn’t be so aggressive about.
These aren’t normal times, however.
Dugan said the decision to cite motorists for failing to make a complete stop in Seminole Heights came from him.
“We want to know who you are. We’ve got four dead people. How many bodies gotta stack up? … so we are stopping everyone.”
In addition to TPD officers in Seminole Heights, there are also law enforcement officers from the Hillsborough County Sheriffs Department, the St. Petersburg Police Department, and now the Florida Highway Patrol in the neighborhood, courtesy of Gov. Rick Scott.
The chief also defended what some have labeled heavy-handed tactics such as officers clad in SWAT gear and holding long guns knocking on doors and asking residents if they can search their homes. He said residents have “every right to say no,” but he said the circumstances demanded such actions.
“This person is a coldblooded killer and we’re trying to catch them, and there is no doubt in my mind that cops are not exempt from his bloodthirst,” Dugan said.
Activist Connie Burton asked Dugan if he would consider changing the profile of the suspected killer, questioning if the suspect might have had military service or be a rogue cop?
Dugan appeared pained to pontificate broadly, especially with so many scrutinizing his every word. He confessed that it had crossed his mind that the suspect might have law enforcement training.
There were some raw feelings in the room, going back to 2015 when the TPD policy on citing black bicyclists for citations became the subject of a Tampa Bay Times series known colloquially as “Biking While Black.”
The uproar in the community led the department to call on the U.S. Department of Justice Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) to study the issue. A year later, they produced an 82-page report showing the policy was not discriminatory, but also ineffective.
Neither Tampa police nor Mayor Bob Buckhorn apologized for the now discarded policy, a slight that still stings in the community. While Dugan wasn’t in charge at the time, he was part of the force and was pressed on the issue Thursday by activist Jarvis El-Amin.
“We thought we were doing the right thing,” said Dugan. “We weren’t targeting African-Americans. We were targeting people doing violations on their bicycles. Afterward, when we sat down and looked at the numbers, clearly we were stopping mostly African-Americans.”
Former Police Chief Jane Castor pushed back strongly against the Times story after its publication, and Dugan appeared to still have problems with the story himself.
The chief added that there were murder suspects who escaped on bikes and another story of a young black man throwing a box containing an automatic rifle into a bush.
“Why was that not part of the story? I don’t know.”