OFFICER DAVID DUBENDORF
Moved to Sarasota: 2004
Where from: Lansing, Mich.
Family: Wife, Michelle; son Alex, 11; daughter Zoe, 7
Hobbies: The father of two is a taekwondo instructor at Carpenters ATA, and he often takes his son and daughter to soccer matches.
Out in the elements: Dubendorf starts his shift at 6 a.m. He always keeps his sunglasses and hand sanitizer close by.
Officer David Dubendorf didn’t get a chance to have his coffee this Thursday morning. But, even without the caffeine buzz, he has plenty of energy to meet his 10-hour shift head-on. As the homeless liaison officer with the Sarasota Police Department, these days he is taking on more and more tasks — from checking on homeless camps hidden in tall brush along an old rail line to trying to calm two intoxicated women engaged in a fight.
As the temperature heats up just before noon, Dubendorf stops the SPD’s all-terrain Gator beside an industrial building off the rail line north of Fruitville Road, where he sees a homeless man and woman who don’t bother to disguise the beers at their feet.
“It’s my first beer of the day,” the man says when Dubendorf walks up.
Dubendorf has them empty the half-full beers. He reminds the man of how he can get when he’s intoxicated.
“We need to get you over to ‘the Sally’ (Salvation Army) to see Cathy. She is trying to get all the women to come in,” he says to the homeless woman. He’s referring to Cathy Hart, shelter manager at the Salvation Army, who has been trying to encourage women living on the street to come to the Salvation Army. There, they’ll have a roof over their head and receive three meals a day. They’ll also have access to programs designed to help them overcome alcohol and drug addictions; find a job; and stop living on the streets.
Many of the homeless call Dubendorf “Carrot Top.” He is not offended. But whether they choose “Carrot Top” or “Officer Dave,” the homeless population of the city of Sarasota knows him, or at least know of him.
“I kind of stand out,” says the 5-foot-7 Michigan native. The 41-year-old father of two boasts an athletic build and has freckles and short, cropped, carrot-colored hair.
A police officer with the SPD since 2005, Dubendorf took over the post as homeless liaison officer eight months ago. Since then, the feedback from those he regularly encounters is positive.
“He deals with you on a one-to-one basis,” says Clinton Earl Scott, a former construction worker from North Carolina who has been homeless in Sarasota since the 1990s.
Although he’s been in his current position for less than a year, police work is nothing new to Dubendorf. From 2005 to 2010, he worked as a narcotics officer in North Sarasota. Then, for two years, he worked the Main Street beat. That’s when Scott met the officer.
Scott says the first time he met Dubendorf, he could tell he had a black belt in martial arts, just by the way the officer carried himself — with confidence, but not aggressively.
“I saw it in his eyes,” Scott says. “I asked him, ‘Third degree or fourth degree?’”
Scott admittedly has a drinking problem, but he tries to stay out of trouble. Dubendorf has arrested him three times for drinking from an open container, but Scott says Dubendorf is polite and doesn’t come up yelling before he knows what is happening.
“He’s a cool dude,” Scott says.
But that doesn’t mean he’s a pushover.
Dubendorf has a black belt (second-degree black belt, but now working on his third-degree) and was ranked second in his age group during the 2012-2013 national martial arts championship in Orlando.
“There was this one time down on Main, he went to calm these two women who were fighting,” Scott says.“One of them turned and started slapping away on (Dubendorf).”
He had her in the handcuffs in seconds, Scott recalled.
Dubendorf gets in the Gator — a small four-wheel-drive vehicle that has “everything except air conditioning” — and continues north along the rail line, toward a homeless camp that has been engulfed in flames four times in the last few months because of camp fires that burned out of control. There are no indications anyone has been at the camp recently, so he continues to drive north.
A few minutes later, Dubendorf stops again. Leaning from the all-terrain vehicle, he chats with three homeless people sitting in the grass along a fence north of 10th Street. The three inform him of other homeless people who are being aggressive and causing problems in the area.
The homeless liaison officer warns them to be careful around a man who has been getting into trouble and fights, and who will probably be arrested again soon.
Dubendorf doesn’t take breaks.
He has an office at the Sarasota Police Department, but he is hardly ever there. He spends most of his 10-hour shifts on the Gator or on his SPD bicycle — his preferred form of transportation because it allows him to interact more with people.
One of the homeless liaison officer’s most important duties is “constant monitoring and taking care of problems,” Dubendorf said. The most common issues he faces are open container and trespass violations. Sometimes he’ll receive calls about indecent exposure or urinating in public during daytime hours.
“That’s something I don’t give a break on,” Dubendorf says. “There are people and kids around.”
Dubendorf remembers which homeless woman starts fights; which man was given a trespass warning at Five Points Park last week; and also the one who stopped taking his meds. But, even with this knowledge, his day is full of the unpredictable.
A homeless man pulled a machete on him just after he started on the homeless-liaison beat. And, just a few weeks ago, Dubendorf walked into the former Publix building in the Ringling Shopping Center and caught two homeless people engaged in a sexual act.
His days are long and sometimes dangerous.
“You ask if I ever get scared,” Dubendorf says. “Sometimes, yeah.”
When Dubendorf gets home after his shift, he needs a way to unwind. So, he takes a quick shower, then heads to a martial-arts school near his home, to teach karate to students who range from 4 years old all the way up to 50.
“It takes my mind off what I did all day,” Dubendorf says.
Law enforcement, Dubendorf says, is limited in what they can do.
It’s no secret the city has struggled to deal with a homeless population that has increased four-fold from 2011 to 2013, according to a survey by the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness. In January, 1,234 people were homeless in Sarasota County.
Dubendorf would like to see the homeless people he interacts with get off the streets and find jobs. For many, that means entering a substance-abuse program; for others, it means finding counseling, which can be difficult because only one mental-health clinic, Coastal Behavioral Healthcare Inc., accepts patients without health insurance and that is “We are law enforcement. All we can do is enforce,” he says. “What we need is more of the social services.”
Bryan Pope, general manager of the Salvation Army, agrees with Dubendorf. He says that a “holistic approach” is needed. The Salvation Army has dozens of volunteer counselors and nine full-time caseworkers, but the challenge is getting people to come in, and stay in a program.
The unfortunate reality in many cases is that even some homeless people who try to turn their lives around end up back where they were, Dubendorf says.
He recalls one hopeful moment when a homeless man told him he’d found work.
When Dubendorf saw him a few days later, he asked the man how his job was going, and the man said he was no longer working. Dubendorf asked him what happened, and the man said, “(Living in a homeless camp) is just easier.”
A tip for residents: “I tell most people, ‘Don’t get involved (with panhandlers).’ If residents want to donate, that’s great. They can go to the Salvation Army or Resurrection House. That won’t enable anyone, and the money will go to counselors and things that are really needed.”