BY SAMUEL JOHNSON
SPECIAL TO THE FLORIDA COURIER
TAMPA – Eric Ward, a 47-year-old Tampa native who has spent his entire 26-year career with the Tampa Police Department (TPD), was introduced on April 30 as the city’s newest police chief. He replaces Jane Castor, who served for five years.
Ward’s appointment comes on the cusp of a widely distributed investigative report published by the Tampa Bay Times and reprinted in the Florida Courier that documented Tampa’s disproportionate enforcement of state bicycle laws that criminalize “bicycling while Black.”
The strict bicycle traffic enforcement policy, instituted by Castor, has come under intense criticism and is now the subject of a U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) probe because of the high rate of police stops and traffic citations occurring in predominantly Black and Brown neighborhoods as compared to other Tampa communities.
‘The right person’
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn showered praise on Castor’s performance, while calling Ward’s appointment “the right person at the right time” to take over TPD.
Ward outlined a three-pronged policy initiative. His first policy is focused on beefing up community outreach programs. Ward recounted that in his youth, he took advantage of programs like the Police Athletic League that fosters positive interactions between youth and law enforcement.
Secondly, Ward wants to devote more resources to fighting violent crimes by using special task forces to tackle gang violence, homicide and narcotics. He wants to develop a partnership among law enforcement, community residents and business partners to fight violent crime.
Ward’s third area of focus is officer training.
Ward encouraged the DOJ investigation, adding that TPD is “a transparent organization.”
Calling it “an education initiative,” Ward insists that strict enforcement of bike laws is necessary because of the high rate of biking fatalities. (Florida has the highest rate of biking deaths in the nation.)
Immediately after Ward’s appointment, a crowd gathered outside TPD headquarters to oppose the “business as usual” policy of preemptive bike stops. They want the Tampa City Council to delay Ward’s appointment unless the bike enforcement program is suspended.
Joyce Hamilton Henry, the mid-Florida regional director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said her organization condemns the disparity of the bike stops that predominantly impact African-Americans.
The ACLU is undertaking its own investigation.
Ward earned a criminal justice degree from St. Leo University. He has also supervised various units in TPD, including its dive team, SWAT unit, hostage negotiations team, K-9 unit, and mounted patrol, among others.
Ward will earn $156,000 yearly as chief of police. He will supervise 300 civilian employees and approximately 1,000 sworn officers.