Two weeks after making headlines for arresting a homeless man for charging his cell phone in a public gazebo at Gillespie Park, the Sarasota Police Department is under scrutiny again due to the callous and cavalier attitudes displayed by a few of “Sarasota’s finest.”
The latest example of alleged police malevolency toward the homeless involves the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida calling out a small group of Sarasota police officers for referring to their on-duty interactions with the homeless as “bum hunting.” Communicated in the form of electronic text messages transmitted via onboard computers found inside city police cruisers, these “DIGI messages” reveal an lack of sensitivity, sound judgment and professionalism on behalf of some patrol officers and one supervisor.
Through numerous public records requests, the ACLU obtained copies of recent police department DIGI message logs. The Aug. 7 log shows that Officer Joshua Vance sent a message to Officer Jacob Nelson that said, “I’m the Bum Hunter tonight son! UR a nerd and gonna get beat up by a bum when you wake up…”
The message sent by Vance goes onto say, "Haven’t seen u in a 36 yet, so you need to prove ur self son,” implying that an officer that has not engaged in physical conflict with a homeless person is deemed by his or her peers to be “soft.”
On Aug. 8, Officer Christo Devaney responded to a message from Nelson about playing a prank on the “bum hunters.” In his reply, Devaney wrote, “Got a prank for the bum hunters? They are looking for sleeping bums and I’m going (to) dress up like one and have them find me LOL…Got a wig, camo jacket and a bottle of rum LOL.”
These unflattering revelations and the city’s failing emphasis on using the criminal justice system as a primary means of addressing homelessness were among the topics addressed at the ACLU press conference that took place Tuesday morning on the lawn outside City Hall.
ACLU representatives Michael Barfield and Andrea Flynn Mogensen spoke on behalf of the local chapter of the national civil rights organization, joined by local homeless advocates Richard Martin and Ali Kleber.
Several ACLU board members stood behind the invited speakers holding signs that expressed their displeasure with the police department’s approach to addressing homelessness.
City Manager Thomas Barwin and Captain Paul Sutton from the Sarasota Police Department were in the audience and among the few city officials who knew in advance that the press conference was taking place.During his opening remarks, Barfield said, “We wanted to share with you some very disturbing information uncovered about a culture within the department. Internal police text messages reveal a practice of targeting the homeless that some officers refer to as 'bum hunting.'”
Barfield went on to say, “Other messages that we uncovered indicated that a senior supervisor (Corrine Stannish) instructed officers to target individuals in a city park and cite them for violations of the city code if found in the park.”
Accusing the City of displaying increased intolerance toward the homeless, Barfield said, “Data obtained from the Clerk of the Court supports the fact that the city has escalated the war on the homeless in the past several months. Since late July 2012, arrests and citations for municipal ordinance violations have increased by more than 230 percent.”
After bringing up Sgt. Anthony Frangioni’s recent headline-making arrest of 28-year-old Darren Kersey for “stealing city utilities” (charging his phone) at the Gillespie Park gazebo, Barfield said, “Being ridiculed nationally for this type of behavior doesn’t seem to stop them (the police).”
Barfield concluded his introductory statement by saying, “Today we ask our elected and appointed city leaders to end the city’s war on the homeless. It’s time for leadership on this important issue, not more arrests, citations and heartless treatment of those who need the help most. Application of the criminal justice system has proven not to answer this social problem.”
Former Sarasota Mayor and past director of the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness Richard Martin was the next to speak."I would rather not be here today,” he said. “I am deeply saddened by this disturbing news.”
Emphasizing the point that these egregious communications were the doings of a select few, Martin said, “I do not want to personally take this as a broad-brush indictment of our officers on the street---most officers are part of the solution. There’s clearly some bad apples within the department that need to be rooted out. There’s clearly a culture of tolerance and a vacuum of leadership within the department and certainly at city hall.”
While at the Suncoast Partnership, Martin played a key role in crafting the STEP UP Plan to End Homelessness unveiled in 2011. The plan contains numerous well-researched ideas as to how to better tackle these challenging and complex social issues, but the plan remains severely underfunded.
Martin urged city leaders, the business community and generous philanthropists to adopt successful measures adopted by other cities in dealing with homelessness.
“Please stop wasting our tax dollars on policing, the courts and the jail,” he said. “Take the high road. I want to be proud of my city again.”
After noting that constitutional challenges have been filed at the federal level pertaining to the city’s approach to trespassing the homeless as a means of removing them from city parks and other public spaces, Mogensen, the vice-president of the local ACLU chapter, echoed Barfield’s statements regarding the increase in homeless-related arrests in Sarasota.“We’re asking the city to consider that the police power is not the answer to the problem of homelessness,” she said. “As the police power has been continually exercised and directed at the homeless, constitutional violations are occurring. We will be there to litigate when that happens.”Driving her point home, Mogensen said, “It’s time to free up the police in this city to do what their job is: to detect crime and to keep us safe. Asking those civil servants to solve a social problem has proved expensive, ineffective and frequently unconstitutional. Our goal today is to end that practice and find some more practical and humane solutions to the problems we have in the community.”
Bringing the formal portion of Tuesday’s press conference to a close, Barfield said, “I want to conclude by calling on our elected and appointed city leaders to end this type of behavior; to send the message that the practice specifically of bum hunting will not be tolerated. We think, aside from being juvenile, that it’s just plain wrong and unconstitutional and should not be tolerated anywhere, much less in the city of Sarasota.”
Barfield expressed his opinion that any individuals involved in the practice of “bum hunting” should be disciplined. He also stated a need for sensitivity training in an effort to make officers more sensitive to “the rights of homeless individuals to exist within our community.”
Addressing the glaring lack of leadership that exists when it comes to dealing with Sarasota’s homeless population, Barfield said, “We ask our government to give us a leader on this issue. There’s a noted absence of a leader at the city or county level taking charge of this particular issue. Clearly, the criminal justice system is not the answer. We, being the ACLU, stand ready to work with our city leaders to solve this problem any way we can, but we are not going to idly stand by and let police trample the rights of the homeless or anyone else for that matter.”
- Next week at This Week in Sarasota, read what homeless advocates Ali Kleber and Richard Martin had to say about addressing homelessness in Sarasota. For the city’s reaction to the ACLU allegations, please see “Police department and city manager respond to ACLU Claims.”