For more than a month, Police Chief Peter Abbott sat in the audience of the Police Advisory Panel and heard some of the panel members criticize his leadership skills and effectiveness on the job.
“There is a lot of distrust within the police department,” panel member Barbara Langston said during the March 8 meeting. “The problem is that our chief is not leading that department.”
Abbott was not given a chance to respond to any of the criticisms, which City Manager Bob Bartolotta said was unfair.
At the Monday, March 22 meeting, when Abbott was called to the table to address the panel, it was clear he expected to be able to defend himself.
“I’d like to comment on a lot of this stuff,” he said, shuffling a stack of notes. “It might take a while.”
But after about 10 sentences, Abbott was cut off. Police Panel Chairwoman Susan Chapman asked him to stick to the line of questioning.
The panel was going through the topics that it wanted to address with the public when it holds two forums, one in Newtown and one in the Hispanic community. The forums are designed to see what citizens think of the police department and determine if Sarasota police officers treat minorities differently.
During his talk, the chief started to address specific criticisms leveled at him and his officers.
“Many members of this panel have worked on a constructive process and recommendations,” he said. “And some have been extremely critical of the department, and members of the department have been stereotyped.”
“I know, but let’s talk about the issue we’re talking about, which is identifying any deficiencies in management to maintain morale in the department,” she said.
Abbott leaned back in his chair and appeared frustrated.
“I have lots to speak about if you’d like to hear it,” he said.
Langston cut in.
“We just want that question answered,” she told Abbott.
But other panel members came to Abbott’s defense.
“I’d like to give the chief the opportunity,” said John McGruder. “Not now, because we need to stick to the agenda, but I think it will be helpful for the chief to know he’s going to get the opportunity to say all the things he needs to say.”
Said Chapman: “He’ll get time. It’s not intended to be unfair or deprive him of an opportunity to say everything he needs to say and criticize us as much as he wants to criticize us, but right now I would like to go through this list.”
The chief agreed and ran through what he thought were attributes that showed he was a good leader, including taking on the challenge of building a new police headquarters, asking all his officers to walk monthly beats in Newtown to create relationships with the residents there and the creation of anti-domestic violence and transient-diversion programs.
“It kind of gets me hot under the collar when you say, ‘Well, what about that leadership,’” he told the panel.
Chapman again cut off Abbott, telling him that he wasn’t sticking to the topic. He then began to talk about morale, which was what she originally asked him to discuss, but was interrupted again, because he wasn’t talking about fairness of internal discipline.
A 2007 Police Benevolent Association study found that some officers believed there was an “A” team and a “B” team in the Sarasota Police Department. Those on the “B” team allegedly received harsher
punishments than those on the “A” team.
The chief said unless someone read every single case, he doesn’t see how one could know if discipline was unfair.
“If people aren’t reading the cases and saying it’s unfair, I have a problem with that,” he said.
Langston referred to another criticism in the PBA study in which officers said they didn’t know a lot of department policies.
“Why aren’t there set policies?” she asked the chief.
Abbott said every officer is required to read and sign off on every policy in the department.
“To say that policies are different for everybody is absurd,” he said. “We’re an accredited agency. You don’t get accredited if you don’t have policies in place.”
But Langston didn’t like his answer.
“You’re giving us a standard answer,” she said. “This isn’t what we said. This is what your officers have said.”
Other panel members interjected to defend Abbott.
“So much of this is opinion voiced by unknown sources,” said Dan Bailey. “It’s difficult to respond to a criticism if you don’t know where it’s coming from or are given an example of what you’re talking about.
Asking him to respond to something that’s not concrete is a little bit difficult and a little bit unfair.”
At the end of the meeting, Chapman promised to give Abbott a spot on the agenda for the April 5 meeting to address the panel.
The Police Advisory Panel announced times, dates and locations for its two public forums, which are designed to get citizen input on the state of the police department and see if citizens feel police officers treat minorities differently than the rest of the community.
The first meeting will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, April 8, at the Robert L. Taylor Community Center,
1845 34th St.
The second meeting is from 4 to 6 p.m., at Iglesia de Dios en Victoria, 2066 Eighth St.
Contact Robin Roy at [email protected].