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Friends, colleagues laud Castor’s career, character

TAMPA — You can measure the mettle of Jane Castor in the tip of her trigger finger.

As Tampa’s first female police chief, Castor has plenty of accomplishments under her gun belt, including devising a near-perfect security plan for the Republican National Convention, overseeing a dramatic drop in crime and leading the charge to capture a man who killed two of her officers.

But her boss pointed to an incident last year to showcase the chief’s character.

“I think it was when she lopped off the tip of her finger,” said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn.

In a freak boating accident, Castor lost the tip of right index finger — her trigger finger. It’s a digit Castor probably uses more on a keyboard hunting Hs and Ns and Ys than squeezing off rounds at menacing felons.

“She had a great sense of humor and perspective throughout that whole ordeal,” Buckhorn said. “She didn’t miss a beat and she had fun making fun of herself. She really has a sense of humor.”

But what Castor did in the wake of the finger-tip loss, he said, really shows what makes her tick.

“She went about the business of making sure she was prepared in the event she wasn’t able to fix the finger,” Buckhorn said. “She trained herself to shoot with her middle finger.”

The chief practiced and practiced, and when it came time to qualify for her firearms certification, she hit 38 of 40 shots.

“As a former athlete,” Buckhorn said, “she has that mental toughness.”

When her mandatory retirement kicks in May 6, Castor will stay on as chief for another year as a contract employee.

“She’s done an amazing job,” Buckhorn said. “I’ve known her since 1987 and I’ve watched her grow in her career, assuming more and more responsibilities. ... She’s thorough; she’s a police officer through and through. And on top of that she has a very wicked sense of humor.”

In revealing the clipped finger at a news conference, Castor gave what she described as her standard explanation: “It was taken off by a vicious scallop.”

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As chief, Castor forged relationships with communities throughout the city, which helped reduce crime by more than 60 percent during her tenure.

“I’m very proud of the partnership we have built with the community,” she said. “It’s really a team effort.”

She was the face of the department — and a city in mourning — during the fevered manhunt for Dontae Morris, who killed officers Dave Curtis and Jeff Kocab on June 29, 2010, then led the department on an exhaustive manhunt until Morris surrendered four days later. Since then, she stood with the widows of the officers, supporting them through court hearings and grim anniversaries.

“The hardest part of this job,” she said, “has been when we have had officers injured or killed in the line of duty.”

She engineered a plan that resulted in a peaceful Republican National Convention in Tampa in 2012, quelling unrest that threatened to churn the streets of Tampa as it had convention cities before. By filling downtown with uniformed officers and fencing off potential targets of protesters, her department made just two arrests.

“Our aim was to have the world see how great the Tampa Bay area is and to do that, we had to keep the focus off the security,” she said, “and in my opinion, we were very successful with that.”

She cleaned house last year, firing six officers ­— some veterans — between May and January, including a long-time police sergeant in a scandal that involved a prominent attorney’s drunken driving arrest. Other officers were fired for a variety of reasons, including lying, welfare fraud, stealing money from the evidence room and spending hours at a strip club while on duty.

“Members of the department want their organization to be recognized as an agency with integrity,” Castor said. “It’s embarrassing for officers when one of them goes against the oath of office or does something inappropriate. They expect to be held accountable. Recipients of discipline may not appreciate it, but if you ask them, I think they would say that I’m fair.”

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Whether or not she’s asked to extend her new contract, Castor plans to call it quits in 2015. There are a few programs she would like to see through to the end, she said, and after a year, those goals will be accomplished.

“One year,” Castor said, “and I will feel comfortable handing off a well-rounded, well-respected department to the next chief.”

Buckhorn vowed to try for more than a year.

“I love her passion for the job,” he said. “I think she’s one of the best chiefs in the country and the department reflects that.”

Buckhorn said Castor’s standing in minority communities is one reason for the drop in crime.

When police officers get out of their cars and interact with people, things happen, he said.

“I think Jane’s very nature is to make sure everybody is treated fairly, no matter what station in life they are; whether they are in East Tampa or Palma Ceia. And she’s very approachable. She’s engaging and open and willing to listen, and I think that makes her popular as the chief.”

Castor said she’s proud of her relationships with the community.

“I think, as a whole, I’m viewed as being a very fair leader,” she said, “and there is an understanding that the Tampa Police Department exists to serve the citizens.”

Dianne Hart, CEO of the East Tampa Business and Civic Association, said Castor has made all the right moves in East Tampa.

“I think the chief has worked very hard trying to get crime under control,” Hart said. “I’ve had a positive working experience with her. Of course, the community is not going to embrace everything the police department does, but overall she’s very positive. I can call her when an issue arises and get it resolved.”

When Hart says “call her,” she means it. Hart and other community leaders and residents have the chief’s cellphone number.

“The chief gives out her cellphone number and anybody can call it,” she said. “I like the fact that she does allow for us to call her and she will talk to you personally.”

Hart can’t recall any other police chief doing that.

“There are challenges, there always have been challenges in these communities,” she said. “Some of what (Castor) has done is why we are in a better position now than we were years ago. She’s headed in the right direction.”

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Castor, 54, has been with the department since February 1984 and during that 30-year career, she has risen to the top through the ranks of a male-dominated profession. That gives her chops with rank-and-file officers.

“Police officers expect you to do your job and you have to prove yourself,” she said. “By coming through the organization — I’ve worked there for 25 years before becoming police chief — the officers knew I knew the job and I would be a fair leader.

“They knew I would hold everybody to the highest of standards. That’s what everybody wants, not just police officers, but the community as well. I think I’m well respected. Even if they don’t necessarily agree with me, they know I have the best interest of the department and the community in mind.”

Buckhorn said he watched Castor blossom during the tenure of former Chief Stephen Hogue.

Hogue disagrees.

“She was already in full bloom when I got there,” he said.

“The day I retired, I predicted she would become the best chief this city has ever had and that obviously is true. Just look at her leadership during the RNC ... the way she led the department through that. She has a fair approach to everything.”

Police and protesters at political conventions have a history of skirmishing, Hogue said, and that can snowball into full-blown riots. But not in Tampa.

“She brought them sandwiches and drinks,” Hogue said, “and posed for pictures with them.”

“There were a lot of things when I was police chief, that I got credit for, but she was the architect for those things and the driving force behind them. When I had tough assignments, I always gave them to Jane because I knew she could get them done.”

Former Mayor Pam Iorio saw that as well.

Elected in 2003, Iorio picked both Hogue and Castor to be chiefs during her eight-year tenure in City Hall.

Now the CEO of Big Brothers, Big Sisters of America in Dallas, Iorio said that she first met Castor when Castor was Hogue’s assistant chief.

“She was the one he relied on most of the time,” Iorio said. “I got a chance to watch her in action and I saw what kind of leader she was.” When Hogue retired, Castor was the only choice, Iorio said.

It was Iorio who flanked Castor at the daily news conferences during the manhunt for Morris.

“We went through a lot together during that time,” Iorio said. “There was not a moment that we felt differently about what to do. We were in sync on how to approach every aspect of it; the manhunt, the coordination with the officers’ families, the preparations for the funerals, every aspect we agreed on.”

A lasting image from that difficult time is the chief in daily news conferences as the manhunt for Morris continued. Her no-nonsense demeanor and pledge that the killer would be caught helped reassure a city on edge.

For Kelly Curtis, the chief’s support was much more personal.

“I think she is an absolutely wonderful person,” said Curtis, widow of slain officer David Curtis. “Our whole ordeal was such an emotional, trying, stressful time and she was such a source of strength and always had a way about her that was so strong. She was just in crisis mode and was absolutely clear headed.

“Even afterward, she was a source of strength ­— to have her there — and it always meant a lot to us to see the show of support from the department,” Curtis said. “She has always had an open-door policy and she has said that if we need anything, not to hesitate to call. I’ve never felt like scared or worried, because she’s the chief.”

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Castor oversees a department that numbers more than 1,000 sworn officers and this year operates with a $149 million budget. A Tampa native, Castor attended the University of Tampa on a basketball and volleyball scholarship and her first job out of college was with the Tampa Police Department.

Perhaps her biggest challenge as chief was creating a peacekeeping plan to keep the streets of Tampa riot-free during the RNC in August 2012 and it has proved to be a model, though some disagreed with the way it was carried out.

As many as 3,000 officers from the department and from across the state filled downtown Tampa.

Jared Hamill, who helped coordinate protests with March on the RNC, said the strategy was over the top.

“I definitely think it was overkill,” he said. “There was absolutely no violence. There were peaceful protests, protests that families attended.

“An example is during the beginning days of the RNC,” he said. “We held a press conference with couple dozen people. What the police did was actually show up in force. There were like 20, 30, 40 bike cops circling us in the park and we were just talking to the cameras.

“They were trying to scare the protesters. It definitely was a message to the protesters, a scare tactic. Take that and the look of downtown with barricades and boarded-up windows, and it looked like a militarized zone. There probably were more cops there than protesters.”

On the national stage, Tampa gleamed with just a couple of arrests, no violence or vandalism and in the end, the city appeared a model for how to conduct large-scale national events.

For some, Castor is more than chief of police. She serves on boards in the community and works with at-risk children and adults.

She mentors women at the Hillsborough House of Hope, which provides temporary housing to women who have been in jail, organization President Claudia Sellers said.

“She’s a very caring person,” Sellers said. “The women who go into Hillsborough House of Hope are women who have said it’s actually the Tampa police force that saved their lives. They say they would have died of some drug overdose or been killed in a crime had the police not arrested them and put their lives on a different path.”

When Castor comes to events and meets the women, Sellers said, “they hug her and thank her for saving their lives.”

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