The way Sarasota City Manager Bob Bartolotta sees it, it’s pretty straightforward.
Police Chief Peter Abbott failed in his leadership of the department. The two decided together on Tuesday Abbott should resign.
But there must be more to it than that, more to the relationship that dissipated between Sarasota’s popular police chief for the past eight years and a city manager who has been on the scene for three years.
In interviews with officials inside City Hall and the police department — all of whom declined to be identified for fear of retribution — a divergent picture emerges of the relationship between the two.
“They butted heads from the beginning,” said one City Hall insider. “The city manager has to be in control, and the chief is an independent person.”
One of the organizers of the Downtown Sarasota Alliance said when the group wanted to include top city administrators on the DSA board, it thought of including Bartolotta and Abbott. The organizer said Abbott was reluctant to join, saying: “That could be uncomfortable. We just don’t see eye to eye.”
Although that is a common refrain among a cross-section of insiders, there is little public evidence of differences or strain.
To the contrary, at a Police Advisory Panel meeting in March, Bartolotta came to the defense of Abbott.
After Bartolotta witnessed the chief not being given a chance to respond to the panel’s criticism of his leadership, Bartolotta and Abbott walked out of the meeting together. Bartolotta told the chief the panel was not treating him fairly.
And there was this, a picture of a fair and compassionate Bartolotta:
June 26, 2009, was the day a police officer was caught on camera kicking a handcuffed suspect. That led to revelations that Abbott approved a payment to that suspect without consulting Bartolotta or the city attorney. And that led to Bartolotta suspending Abbott for two weeks and putting him on a four-month administrative leave.
Abbott told The Sarasota Observer that when Bartolotta meted out the suspension, the city manager did not keep him in suspense.
“He said right away, ‘You’re coming back,’” said Abbott, 54. “I felt a tremendous sense of relief, of gratitude. I said, ‘Thank you for taking me back.’”
Said Bartolotta: “I believe in giving someone an opportunity to change.”
List of expectations
That opportunity came in November. When Bartolotta reinstated Abbott then, he gave Abbott six months to accomplish the following:
Implement the Police Advisory Panel recommendations; improve the process in which the police department handles complaints against officers; streamline the deapartment’s general orders; consider the feasibility of video or audio recording devices in all patrol cars; work more closely with the city attorney; enact recruitment strategies that result in more diversity in the force; enhance community-oriented policing; adopt new training procedures that deal with ethics and professional conduct; allow an internal-affairs coordinator to report to both the police chief and city manager.
By most accounts, those steps either had not been addressed or were in the process of being addressed.
When Bartolotta laid out those requirements, officers told The Sarasota Observer, a majority of officers felt Bartolotta was inserting himself improperly into police business and that he was an outsider with no law-enforcement experience.
Bartolotta bristles at those suggestions, saying the police department is the largest department under his command and that it would be irresponsible of him just to ignore any problems there.
The failure to adopt the measures was only part of the problem, Bartolotta said. He also said Abbott had a few months to consider changes to the department during his administrative leave.
“I expected him to come back with ideas,” Bartolotta said.
‘Set up to fail’
Abbott’s supporters say the chief was stifled in his efforts — by the Police Advisory Panel and the city manager himself.
“He was brought back with so much over his head,” said former Mayor Mary Anne Servian, who served on the City Commission when Abbott was hired in 2002. “The police panel has caused so much dissension.
He was set up to fail.”
The City Commission created the Police Advisory Panel last year to analyze the police department’s policies and procedures. The panel’s relationship with the chief has been contentious at times, with some panel members offering harsh criticism.
“There is a lot of distrust within the police department,” panel member Barbara Langston said during a March meeting. “The problem is that our chief is not leading that department.”
A 2007 Police Benevolent Association study revealed that many officers felt there was an “A” team and a “B” team in the department. The chief treated the “A” team, his favorites, more leniently than the “B” team.
Police panel adviser Ernie Scott interviewed 26 police officers earlier this year and said the situation was identical today.
The panel is set to release its final recommendations May 24. Asked why he didn’t allow Abbott a chance to address its suggestions, Bartolotta said the resignation had more to do with Abbott’s overall leadership of the department. The totality of all the events, surveys, expectations and interviews is what ultimately led to a request for Abbott’s resignation, Bartolotta said.
Abbott support caused tension
Servian believes Abbott’s popularity in the community didn’t help him inside City Hall.
When Abbott was placed on administrative leave last July, many Sarasotans appeared before the police panel and spoke on his behalf. At a Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce event, while Abbott was still on suspension, when the emcee acknowledged Abbott’s attendance, the audience gave him boisterous applause.
Servian believes Abbott became more popular, causing some resentment and adding to the tension between him and Bartolotta.
By all accounts, Abbott is the definition of a nice guy. Some in the department felt he was too nice to make tough decisions within the department.
“He’s got very good skills in dealing with the public,” said the city manager. “But those skills are different than dealing with internal problems. You have to have both skills.”
When discussing his resignation, Abbott is pragmatic.
“Sometimes you have to move on,” he said. “If you’re not going in the direction the administration wants you to, they have an obligation to make a move. I understand that.”
“I’ve had a professional relationship with Peter Abbott since he came to Sarasota. He has dedicated so much of his personal time to non-profits in the community — more than anyone else in the city. There will be such a vacuum of leadership with his departure.”
Mary Anne Servian
Former Sarasota mayor
“I’m very saddened by it. I have strong personal feelings toward him. I hope he doesn’t disappear, because I think he’s a citizen of value to the community.”
“It’s a loss for the community. The events last year were unfortunate and could have been handled differently. But this could have been handled differently, too. In this time of budget cuts, to expect him to change an entire culture at the police department (is not fair.)”
Owner of Pastry Art
“The chief’s a really nice guy. It’s hard when you have someone like that. I support the city manager’s decision. I hope it’s a good one for the chief and a good one for the department.”
“Chief Abbott gave us some valuable input over the past several months, so it’s regrettable he won’t be around to implement any of the panel’s recommendations that may be ultimately adopted by the commission.”
Member of the Police Advisory Panel
Contact Robin Roy at [email protected].