"We got him:" How Tampa's largest manhunt unfolded after officer deaths

Chiefs offered a number of lessons learned from LODDs during session at IACP 2012

Even as statistical data indicates a slight — but steady — decline in the number of reported violent crimes taking place during the past half decade in the United States, the number of officers fatally shot has increased.

According to information published by DOJ, there were 67 officers shot and killed in the line of duty in 2011, compared to 40 in 2008.

During an afternoon seminar on Saturday three speakers — Chief Jane Castor, Tampa (Fla.) Police Department, Deputy Chief Benson Fairow, BART (Calif.) Police Department, and John Czneris of VALOR — offered a number of lessons learned from well-known incidents in which officers were shot and killed in the line of duty.

Chief Jane Castor discussed a wide variety of the elements which went into the manhunt for the killer of two officers.
Chief Jane Castor discussed a wide variety of the elements which went into the manhunt for the killer of two officers. (Photo Doug Wyllie)

Five Days at Tampa PD
Neither time nor space allow for me to cover in a single column everything that was discussed in the two-hour session, so I will report today only on one element: the four-day manhunt for 24-year-old Dontae Morris, who shot and killed Officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab during a 2010 traffic stop.

You will likely recall that Officers Curtis and Kocab were shot at 0215 hours on June 29, 2010. The identity of the shooter was known — his face captured on dash cam and his records pulled up on a squad car MDT — so in the very first hours after the shooting, many felt that the search would quickly come to an end.

It did not — it lasted for four days and ultimately became the largest manhunt in Tampa history.

Chief Castor discussed a wide variety of the elements which went into the manhunt and the aftermath of the incident. However, among her many recommendations and remarks, two in particular jumped out — controlling the media and coordinating the search for the suspect using the immediate activation of ICS processes and procedures.

Almost immediately, Castor sent the Assistant Chief of Operations to the scene. She had sent the other Assistant Chief to the hospital to manage that part of the response. 

“You’ve got to have supervision out there overseeing the actual incident,” Castor remarked.

Within one hour of the shooting, the ICS system had been fully activated and allied agencies were delivering what Castor called “their A-game” in their own specific areas of strength.

“We have amazing law enforcement relationships in the city of Tampa and the Tampa Bay area,” Castor said. By the time she and the mayor had left the hospital and headed to the scene of the shooting, there were close to 20 agencies out there.

“We never called anybody,” Castor said. “They just came.”

Knowing the strengths of each — from the FBI to U.S. Marshals to Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office and more than a dozen other agencies — every important element to the response was being simultaneously addressed. 

Castor even had spoken with a friend who had a relationship with a restaurant chain.

“I feel so bad,” her friend had said. “I wish there was something I could do.” 

Soon after that phone call, food from that restaurant chain was being delivered to the cops on the street.

Managing the Media
Castor said they had situational briefings thee times a day involving the Sheriff, the Mayor, herself and others.

“There were no egos in that room,” she said.

Where egos did come into play, however, was the media. Castor is quite clearly a savvy police leader worthy of praise for a great many reasons, but for me, her deft handling of the press during the department’s darkest hours stands out as being of particular interest. 

As a former director of communications in the corporate world, I nearly leaped to my feet in applause when she said, “It’s a one-voice policy. It’s got to come out of either your mouth, or at your direction.”

Castor correctly said also that most police officers don’t like the media, but the fact of the matter is that they have the megaphone — they shape the image of law enforcement out in the community so it is imperative to control the media to every extent possible.

Tampa PD did an outstanding job, not only by giving regular briefings, but by using those briefings in a strategic way. 

Castor had initially limited the release of information on the officers’ conditions, but on the morning of the first day, she gave an emotional statement to the press in which she revealed the names of the officers and their conditions.

Furthermore, as the manhunt was ongoing, she released family photos of each officer which humanized those officers in the hearts and minds of the public.

“What we did on the second day was start to show the personal side of Dave and Jeff,” Castor said.

Feelings of Kinship
One photo released to the media showed Jeff and his wife Sarah, who was quite clearly pregnant with the couple’s child, and another in which Dave was seated with his wife Kelly with three of their four young sons.

By showing the public images of these officers as men — with young families who would now have to press on without their beloved husbands and fathers — Castor quite likely created feelings of kinship among many members of the community.

There’s no way to be certain, but it’s reasonable to speculate that the number of citizens’ tips during the search was increased because of this. 

On the opposite side of that coin, Castor and her team distributed information to the media that effectively dehumanized Dontae Morris. 

During the manhunt, Tampa PD became aware of the fact that Morris was wanted for three additional murders in that city. In the span of a few short months, this individual had killed five people, and Castor made that known to citizens of her city.

She released this information with great skill — she did not want to create panic, of course, but she did want to make the community feel that the last place they wanted Morris to be was on the streets. 

“Everybody wanted this guy off the streets. People would say, ‘Please come search my apartment because I don’t want this maniac anywhere around me.’” 

By feeding the media all of this information, she was preventing them from becoming “aggressive” in their pursuit of the story. There were times during the course of the four days that Castor really didn’t have anything new to report, so she took the advice of Tampa PD PIO Laura McElroy, a one-time member of the mainstream media, and found new ways to say old things, giving the press and the public something they could watch, read, or listen to.

At nearly every press conference, she reinforced that the suspect had really no other options but to surrender — saying that he would determine the level of force used in his apprehension.

At one point, Castor was asked by one member of the media, “Do you think he’s scared?”

Her reply was priceless.

She said, “I hope he’s scared, because his only option is to turn himself in. Dontae Morris will determine the level of force used to take him into custody. If he wants to give up then he’ll be safe, that’s his choice. 

Day Five — The Funeral
When Castor took the job as Chief, someone had said to her that they hoped she never had to stand in the doorway of someone’s home to report that their loved one was not coming home — that they’d been killed in the line of duty. 

At the time of the tragic murders of Officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab, Tampa PD was still reeling from the August 2009 murder of Michael Roberts. The PD was in shock and in mourning.

So it’s understandable that Castor drew strength from the arrest of Dontae Morris.

Late Friday evening, while she was writing the eulogy for her fallen officers, Chief Castor received a phone call from one of her Assistant Chiefs.

“We got him,” the caller said.

“Honestly,” Chief Castor said, “I was never more relieved in my entire life. To be able to go into that service the next day with him sitting in jail was just wonderful.”

It is impossibly difficult to find anything good in the tragedy which occurred in Tampa on June 29, 2010.

I found it today in Chief Jane Castor.

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