Bernadette DiPino is an agent of change. It goes beyond being the Sarasota Police Department’s first female chief — she’s prioritized an institutional, philosophical change of direction, internally and externally.
She knows that, inherently, that will open her up to criticism, that there will people — including people within the police department — resisting her efforts.
“I often kid around: There are some people who like playing in the mud, and they’re all dirty, and you’re like, ‘I wanna get you out of the mud, and I wanna spray you clean with a hose and make you all nice and shiny and clean,’” DiPino said. “And they say, ‘Eh, I’m used to the mud. At least I know what I get with the mud.’”
Since taking over as the head of the police department at the end of last year, DiPino has been fighting to overcome the hurdles she believes are rooted in complacency, to a natural inclination to fight change.
Whatever the basis, early on, those hurdles have often come from within the department.
Mayor Shannon Snyder is one of DiPino’s most outspoken critics. He said, even though the police union was strongly opposed to him in his most recent election, he’s been receiving considerable support from law enforcement entities for taking a stand against DiPino.
“The one thing I really have to compliment her for is that I’m no longer the most hated person at that police department,” Snyder said. “I have never seen an agency close ranks so far and so fast and so tight as those guys have over her leadership.”
Snyder’s complaints are varied: He’s upset by what he considered a slow response to crimes in high-crime areas; by attempts to divert more officers to high-crime areas; and by a lack of training and succession planning.
Above all, though, he’s concerned about Sarasota’s crime numbers. He points to a ranking of the 100 most dangerous cities in the country from the website NeighborhoodScout, on which Sarasota comes in at No. 100, as evidence some significant — and visible — changes need to be made. The list was published before DiPino took over.
“I hear every buzzword I’ve heard in law enforcement for the past 30 years, but I haven’t seen any action,” Snyder said.
Much of DiPino’s action to date is not easily evaluated through figures. She said her process in her first seven months was like renovating a house: She looked at the organization’s structure; looked for things she wanted to keep and things she wanted to change.
Her priority was a focus on community-based policing, on getting officers to embrace a customer-service mentality and work alongside the residents of the neighborhoods they patrol. She acknowledges it hasn’t been a seamless transition, but believes progress is being made.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day,” DiPino said. “It’s going to take a little bit longer than that for there to be effectual changes, but I’ve seen some significant changes within the organization, personally. I’ve seen it within the community, too.”
DiPino has put in significant work with the community. She said she has met with more than 100 citizen groups — easily, her assistant confirms — to teach them about community policing.
City Manager Tom Barwin cited DiPino’s availability to the general public as her greatest success in her tenure, thus far. He said the relationship between the police and residents had deteriorated before DiPino took over, and that a good working relationship with neighborhoods was essential to quality policing.
By attending so many meetings, he said, she’s ensuring the relationship between the police and the citizens is repaired on multiple levels.
“When your chief is out there every day meeting with the public, exposing herself to receiving information and then communicating information, it also helps discipline the whole organization,” Barwin said. “If something is getting out of line or there’s some behavior that’s not in line with community standards or expectations, she’s going to hear about it.”
Still, the process has not been entirely smooth externally, either. Perhaps most notably, Sheriff Tom Knight spoke at a County Commission meeting June 18 about his issues with the SPD. He was critical of its performance in recent months, and said the sheriff’s department has increasingly had to cover for city police.
“I can assure you of one thing: Their decrease in crime is highly attributable to your sheriff’s office,” Knight said. “I know that.”
DiPino called the situation “unprecedented,” but said she’s worked with the sheriff to mend it. They met a week after Knight made his comments — with which she still disputes the accuracy — and DiPino said she believes they will be able to work together going forward.
“We came up with agreement to work together for the best of the community, and that’s what my commitment is,” DiPino said. “I will continue to do everything I can to keep our community safe and use the resources that are available”
Knight declined to comment about his relationship with DiPino, and sheriff’s department spokeswoman Wendy Rose said the department was trying to move on from the incident.
As she draws closer to a year in her new position, DiPino delineated some goals for the immediate future. Training and succession planning is a high priority for a department that had been lacking in both areas. Homelessness, prostitution and drug crime will all be areas of emphasis.
One thing won’t change, though: her focus on working with the community. Although lowering the crime rate is important — and Sarasota’s crime rate fell 10% last year and 5% so far this year, DiPino notes — what’s more important to her is continuing to ensure citizens and police can work together.
“Even in communities where the crime rate is down, if the community doesn’t have trust of the police, it doesn’t matter that crime is down,” DiPino said. “There has to be trust, there have to be relationships.”
Now in her eighth month as chief of police, Bernadette DiPino evaluates her tenure so far and to list some of her priorities for the near future.
Assumed position: Dec. 31
Previous position: Chief of police in Ocean City, Md.
• Providing training for officers — including 40 hours scheduled for this fall
• Increasing community outreach and emphasizing community-based policing
• Getting people on board with her, both within the police department and within neighborhoods, so that community-based policing is a priority
Areas of emphasis going forward
• Cracking down on homelessness, prostitution and drug crime
• Hiring a criminal analyst and focusing on intelligence-led policing
• Improving training and succession planning internally
Contact David Conway at [email protected].