A 31.5% drop in the number of arrests by Sarasota police officers from 2008 to 2009 has drawn attention not only at the police department but also at City Hall.
Is the drop a result of unrest among police-union members? That’s the question The Sarasota Observer heard from sources who declined to be identified.
In January 2009, the officers in the Sarasota Police Department made 730 arrests. This January, those numbers dropped to 342 — a 53% decline. By comparison, the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office had a 5% increase in arrests in the same period.
City Hall watchers speculated to The Sarasota Observer that leaders may be asking its members to ease up on the job for three reasons: a new contract with the city is still under negotiation; a proposal to reduce all city-employee pensions; and criticism from the Police Advisory Panel.
Police Chief Peter Abbott is trying to put that talk to rest. “(The rumors) are completely erroneous,” he said.
Abbott cited several other factors to explain the steep drop in arrests, including the success of a homeless diversionary program; fewer day laborers because of fewer construction jobs; this winter’s cold weather, which keeps people off the streets; and a change among drug abusers.
“There’s been a major shift away from narcotics and to prescription drugs, which aren’t sold on the streets,” said Abbott.
Nonetheless, the police union has shown dissatisfaction with city leaders. In July, about 60 current and former police officers demonstrated in front of City Hall, demanding City Manager Bob Bartolotta resign if he didn’t immediately begin hiring more officers. Neither happened.
As part of its budget-cutting measures, the city is proposing trimming all employee pensions, including those for police officers. Those who are already retired would not be affected.
The Police Advisory Panel, which the City Commission created after an officer was caught kicking a handcuffed suspect in June, was designed to examine department policies and procedures. Two of the panel members have freely expressed their belief that many police officers discriminate against minorities, and the panel has grilled Abbott about his management skills.
One police officer, who requested anonymity, said many other officers feel beaten down about the fallout from the June 26 incident. The officer said some in the department are trying to be more cautious to make sure they don’t become part of a similar incident.
An adviser to the Police Advisory Panel relayed those same thoughts during the group’s Feb. 22 meeting.
Ernie Scott interviewed 26 Sarasota police officers and found that many of them did not know about current policies and procedures.
“They say: ‘We’re going to do whatever it takes to stay out of trouble,’” said Scott, who doesn’t believe the city is seeing a case of “Blue Flu,” or police officers intentionally not doing their jobs.
Vice Mayor Kelly Kirschner has also heard the rumors and said he hopes Abbott is correct.
“The city invests heavily in public service,” he said. “I hope there’s no concerted effort (by the police union).”
Kirschner said his own experience with the police department is that it responds promptly to complaints in his neighborhood.
Mick McHale, police union president, did not return calls seeking comment.
Contact Robin Roy at firstname.lastname@example.org
LANGSTON: 'SUCK IT UP'
Police Advisory Panel member Barbara Langston addressed the arrest-number rumors at the group’s Feb. 22 meeting.
“(Police) have a job to do. You don’t not perform your duties because somebody doesn’t like you or someone said something bad about you. I am very disappointed in them. When you take that oath, you are supposed to be above that crap we’re listening to. They do need to get some discipline and control. We all get criticisms.”
To download a chart breaking down the number of police department arrests in recent years, click here.
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