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Sarasota Thursday, Jul. 25, 2013 4 years ago

Big budget, questionable results for police

by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

As part of the city’s 2013-14 proposed budget presentation July 8, Sarasota Financial Administration Director John Lege went over a chart comparing the Sarasota Police Department with 14 other Florida municipal police departments.

To focus on the police department was natural: Police spending represented more than half of all general fund expenditures in the budget, $29.45 million in total. The analysis, however, didn’t seem to justify the spending.

Among those 15 municipalities in fiscal year 2012-13, Sarasota was either average or below average in population, area and population density. The police department was sizable, with the most police staff per 1,000 citizens and the second-most officers per 1,000 citizens.

And, yet, in 2012, the city had the second-highest crime rate — 62 crimes per 1,000 people, 17 above the average.

The 2013-14 budget includes a reduction in police staff; there will be 17 fewer sworn-officer positions. The department has also worked to reduce operating expenses; 88% of the police budget is now spent on salary and benefits. Still, the new rate of three officers for every 1,000 citizens would only lower Sarasota from second to third highest among the similarly sized municipalities.

Police Chief Bernadette DiPino has only been on the job since October, but she says an early focus of her work has been analyzing how to operate more efficiently. In addition to reducing positions, she’s been focused on community-oriented policing: working more closely with individual neighborhoods to better serve the area.

She’s also prioritized intelligence-led policing, which included bumping up a part-time criminal analyst to a full-time position in the department’s 2013-14 budget. DiPino believes the work an analyst does — including gathering data on past crimes with an eye toward identifying patterns — will allow the department to operate more efficiently despite carrying fewer officers.

“It’s about having an individual who will crunch numbers, but will also allow us to be predictive and proactive in our deployment,” she said. “I think we will be able to still do good police work in a higher-quality way, where we’re predicting where crimes will take place.”

She also said it might not be practical to measure Sarasota’s crime rates against other cities. Sarasota’s population belies the fact that it’s at the center of a larger county, DiPino said, and that it regularly draws in a sizable population of non-residents.

“I think with a city like Sarasota, it’s tough to compare apples to apples,” DiPino said. “We’re talking about a city center that has a huge population in a tight area, and you’ve got individuals who come work and vacation here, too.”

Ultimately, DiPino believes taxpayers will be content with the money the city is spending on police as long as the department is doing its job effectively.

“I think people live in communities because they feel it’s a clean and safe place,” she said. “You want to have a police presence, and a good police response and a good handling of investigations.”

Contact David Conway at [email protected].

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