At the March 8 Police Advisory Panel meeting, City Manager Bob Bartolotta addressed accusations from some police officers that he is micromanaging the department.
“The police department works for the city manager, just like every other city department,” he said sternly.
“I’m not happy with the way the police department has been run that past six months. I’m not happy that I have to get involved.”
The City Commission created the panel to examine the police department’s policies and procedures in the wake of a mishandled police-brutality investigation last summer.
On Monday, the panel discussed a report one of its advisory board members wrote, in which he interviewed 26 of the department’s 176 sworn officers, and found that a portion of the people he talked to believed there was low morale, in part because Bartolotta was micromanaging.
“I have 650 (employees) I am responsible for,” Bartolotta told the panel. “Over one-third are in the police department. If things are running smoothly, you won’t see me. If not, you’ll see me a lot.”
The city manager said he feels he’s in a lose-lose situation.
“If I’m hands off, I’m still responsible for the department,” he said. “If I take control, then I’m micromanaging.”
Bartolotta said he hears that officers say that he doesn’t know police work, so why should he be involved.
“I hear the same thing from public works, that I’m not an engineer and don’t know how water flows,” he said.
In his more than 30 years in municipal government, Bartolotta said it’s common for police departments in most cities to want to be treated like islands, but he wants to break down that belief and have the department be part of the overall team.
“Last week, I talked to the (police) chief once,” Bartolotta said. “So if that’s micromanaging, then I’m guilty.”
Two of the panel members sharply criticized Chief Peter Abbott for the low morale.
“I don’t know that the chief can be repaired,” said Wayne Genthner. “It’s a bit harsh, but that’s how I see it.”
After talking to a few officers himself and reading the advisory board member’s report, Genthner believes the entire department is dysfunctional.
“We really do need to find a constructive way to repair the office of the chief,” he said.
Panel member Barbara Langston agreed.
“There is a lot of distrust within the police department,” she said. “The problem is that our chief is not leading that department.”
Fellow panel member Dan Bailey said he could not glean enough from the report to come to the same conclusion.
“This is not as much fact as perception,” he said. “I’m not qualified to recommend to the city manager about the possible deficiencies of the chief. I don’t think that’s our job.”
For the second meeting in a row, Abbott was not given a chance to respond to allegations about his competence as a leader, and Bartolotta does not think that it is fair to draw conclusions from interviews of just 15% of the police force.
The city manager said someone could go to the sheriff’s office and choose a few people to talk to and hear some of the same complaints.
Specifically, in response to the question of the chief’s role in low morale, Bartolotta said Abbott has to deal with a number of constraints, including an impasse in a new police-union contract, budget cuts, a reduction in the number of officers, the possible reduction of pensions and criticism from the Police Advisory Panel itself.
“The panel is doing a great job overall,” he said. “But it’s not meant to evaluate police personnel.”
As it prepares to meet with two minority focus groups, the Police Advisory Panel has agreed on several questions to ask the members of those groups.
The panel plans to meet with a group of Newtown residents and with a group of Hispanic residents to get their thoughts on how the police department is run.
The goal is to see if the panel can determine if officers treat minorities differently.
The four initial questions that will be asked of the focus group members are:
• What do want from the police?
• What is a good cop?
• What is a bad cop?
• What is respect to you?
Panel members also decided that they want to hear from a homeless focus group to see if they also receive different treatment than the majority of Sarasotans.
Contact Robin Roy at [email protected].