BY MWEZI DAKE firstname.lastname@example.org Photos by El Square (SquareBiz360)
The Robert Taylor Complex came alive with drama and heated discussion on Monday night, July 25, 2016 as citizens from many parts of Sarasota came out to speak and meet with Chief of Police of Sarasota, Chief DiPino, Trevor Harvey of NAACP and other City leaders.
As the meeting began there was a medical emergency with a member of the audience requiring CPR. With a twist of irony those who came to aide were Sarasota Police Officers and Nurse and mother of Rodney Mitchell who was slain in Sarasota after traffic stop involving Sarasota City Police officer and Sarasota County Officers. Ms. Clemmons worked side by side those assisting the man who was administered CPR until paramedics and the Sarasota Fire Fighters arrived. After the man was taken from the scene the meeting began. Pastor Lumpkin welcomed the audience and spoke of the open wounds that are present, visible and bleeding in Sarasota and spoke of the death of Rodney Mitchell as an example. He went on to say, “No one can convince me that racial profiling doesn’t go on in Sarasota today, it does. We are here tonight to have and hold a civil conversation but frank conversation.”
Trevor Harvey, President of the Sarasota NAACP spoke briefly but was interrupted several times with shouts from the crowd accusing Harvey of being ineffective and uninvolved with the issues in the community. Harvey said, “There are systemic issues across the country and here in Sarasota. We must vote to make sure that those who are in high positions in government, at the local, state as well as the Presidential level take us into account when decisions are made. We can impact change by engaging in the political process and vote as our forefathers fought for the right for us to vote. We do have problems in Sarasota but it is the Grass Root organizations coming to the table and calling out the problems that come to bring solutions . ”
Chief DiPino spoke and gave an explanation as to why the Community meeting two weeks prior had been cancelled abruptly due to burglaries in the area with AK-47 and almost a thousand rounds of ammunition stolen on the day of the scheduled meeting. DiPino said she felt the risk was too great for law enforcement and community members and rescheduled the meeting. DiPino relayed of the current changes in the police department to provide better customer service to the residents of Sarasota and for all Sarasota police officers and staff to have Cultural and Diversity training which included de-escalation techniques, Color of the Law training. DiPino stated her goals were for SPD (Sarasota Police Department) to be effective, appropriate, and free from harassment, bias , accountability and transparency to the whole community. DiPino said, “I expect good customer service for the public, good quality of life, to make a difference and a positive experience one person at a time. We (SPD) will stand on that line of service.”
It was noted by the Sarasota Public Defender and others in attendance the glaring absence of anyone from the Judicial and State representative levels and Sarasota County Sheriff, Tom Knight. Many of the accusations and complaint brought forward were allegations of abuse of power, maltreatment and bias from the County law enforcement officers and the Sheriff. A major concern voiced again and again by citizens stepping to the microphone was, “What changes have been made in the police department to insure citizens, especially those of color and living in Newtown aren’t treated unfairly and harassed?” Chief DiPino replied there was an oversight c o m m i tte e i n p l a c e which was met with dissatisfaction by many in attendance. Several community leaders stepping to the microphone were critical of Newtown residents for not attending the oversight and other meetings to force change. Residents of Newtown responded to the accusations of being uninvolved as untrue and voiced complaints of meetings not being advertised in Tempo and other venues within the community as well as meeting times needed to be flexible to include work schedules of residents. One business owner said Chief DiPino is the only law enforcement officer who has ever come into his business and that SPD officers did not even return a friendly wave when the business owner passed by officers in their cars as he walked to his business. Chief DiPino said she would address the concern and speak to her officers to change the situation.
The overall mood and tension rose as several residents gave personal accounts and accusations of Sarasota Police Officers using unnecessary force, bias, cursing at and using inappropriate racial slurs and language when dealing with Newtown residents and accused SPD and administration of doing nothing when these accusations are brought forward and complaints are written. It seemed there remains a large gulf between SPD and Newtown residents and there seems to be little trust and mutual respect between the two and the City and County Commissioners which are seen as being too far removed from the cares and concerns of Newtown and those who live and work there.
Chief DiPino gave the following statements in a follow-up phone interview on Tuesday with this reporter, DiPino stated, “My first focus and concern are the residents. SPD officers have and will continue to take training, be held accountable. Leadership flows from the top down and I care about Sarasota and its residents. Every time a weapon is pulled or fired there will be a report filed and investigated. Cursing and or racial slurs are always inappropriate and unacceptable. Any officer or staff who does these things will be reprimanded, taken through training and if situation warrants taken to Internal affairs. I want each and every interaction with SPD to be positive.” A request for follow-up comments from Sarasota NAACP leadership wasn’t returned.
Newtown and Sarasota residents still seem to be far apart and Newtown citizens feel they as a whole as African American citizens are not given the respect given to white citizens in Sarasota by City and County Commissioners , SPD and especially Sarasota County Sheriff and County Officers under his command. Hopefully more community meetings will build a bridge of respect and fairness for all. Contact this reporter at email@example.com for follow-up comments, concerns and issues.