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Bernadette DiPino, Sarasota’s first woman to lead the police department, will manage a police force of 174 sworn officers. Photo by Rachel S. O'Hara.
Sarasota Thursday, Oct. 18, 2012 5 years ago

New chief in town: Bernadette DiPino


Ten years ago, when David Massey was getting ready to retire as police chief in Ocean City, Md., he chose a short list of police officers within the department he wanted to apply for the job.

One of those candidates was Bernadette DiPino, then a lieutenant with the Ocean City Police Department.

“I picked her out and encouraged her to apply,” Massey said.

It couldn’t have come as much of a surprise for DiPino, because, years earlier, Massey tapped a young DiPino, along with a few other officers, as potential leaders in the department.

“She wasn’t picked because she was a female, she was picked because she was an achiever,” Massey said of DiPino, who Tuesday was named as the first woman to lead Sarasota’s Police Department as its police chief.

DiPino rose in the ranks during her 25 years with the Ocean City Police Department, from a narcotics officer all the way up to chief of police, in 2003. DiPino became the first female SWAT team officer, lieutenant and, eventually, first female police chief in Ocean City.

“I saw her come up as an officer, first in narcotics,” Massey said. “I nominated her for the FBI Academy.”
Massey saw firsthand during time that DiPino — who graduated from the academy in 2001 with a 4.0 GPA — was up to any challenge.

DiPino will need to be up for challenges in her new role — she will inherit a department struggling with issues such as a violent crimes in North Sarasota and homelessness downtown and should brace for likely forthcoming budget cuts and pension reform. DiPino will also have to fill several higher-ranking police positions in the department.

The department’s relationship with some in the community is frayed after a three-year-long, high-profile investigation into a police officer’s alleged excessive force on a Guatemalan immigrant that resulted in the forced resignation of former Police Chief Peter Abbott.

‘She never fails’
DiPino will face pressure starting the first day on the job — Jan. 1.

“She never fails,” Massey said. “I gave her some of the toughest assignments to see how she would handle them, and there wasn’t one that she didn’t do well.”

Larry Harmel, executive director of the Maryland Chiefs of Police, said DiPino has the temperament to earn the trust of the community, while protecting officers when they are out doing their job.

And she won’t take the easy way out when it comes to hard decisions.

“I know she is a disciplinarian,” Harmel said. “She expects people to do the right thing.”

Although Sarasota currently has 23 sworn women officers on a force of 174 total officers, DiPino is the first woman to lead Sarasota’s police department.

Just up the road, Tampa’s police department is overseen by Jane Castor, whom Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio appointed chief in 2009.

DiPino was one of two woman candidates on the short list of five for Sarasota’s top cop.

When City Manager Tom Barwin narrowed the candidates, he said DiPino stood out, in large part because of her tenure as police chief in Ocean City. He said she seemed “to be very proactive and embrace community outreach.” In addition to managing the Community Policing Unit in Ocean City, DiPino is a certified community-policing instructor and has trained more than 1,000 police officers.

“A core fundamental belief in community policing” is the new chief’s most important asset, Barwin said at a press conference Tuesday.

Barwin’s decision to hire DiPino was one of the first big decisions he has made as Sarasota’s new city manager.

DiPino said she believes in community policing and has asked community-policing expert David Kennedy, whom she met recently, to come to Sarasota to help the city implement changes.

“We are going to do it here in Sarasota,” she said about bringing the High Point Initiative, a crime-fighting plan modeled after a program enacted in High Point, N.C.

Barwin has said he is interested in working with the new chief on innovative programs, such as the High Point Initiative. A similar initiative could be used to fight crime in Sarasota, one example being in North Sarasota.

One aspect of the High Point plan allows for a select group of offenders to receive a “second chance” with assistance from their family and the community. The provided assistance takes many forms, included but not limited to: job training, employment, parenting, day care, substance-abuse treatment, housing, transportation and family assistance.

The program involves few arrests and few traditional practices, because the neighborhoods take responsibility for safety in their communities.

“Everybody has a role in solving crime,” DiPino said.

As DiPino works on a new policing strategy in Sarasota, she will draw on her experience as a long-term planner in Ocean City and with the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association, for which she served on the planning committee.

“She is a planner,” Harmel said. “She is not a reactionary person. She looks ahead.”

DiPino won’t wait until she implements a new policing strategy before she gets out into the community, though. Whether it’s traffic work or patrol work, DiPino said she will be out on the beat.

“I will be wearing my vest,” she said. “You will see me out there.”

Tuesday morning, Barwin introduced DiPino to more than 100 police officers before making his decision public at a press conference at City Hall.

“It was very heartwarming, and I won’t forget it,” DiPino said about meeting the officers.

A role model
DiPino, a fourth-generation police officer, became a role model and a mentor for younger female officers in Ocean City, Massey said.

“Let’s face it; it is a male-dominated field,” Massey said. “She had to overcome some things. She had to trail blaze.”

The former Ocean City chief said DiPino is also experienced in working closely with the business community and neighborhood associations.

DiPino plans to live in the city limits, and she looks forward to getting to know residents and business owners throughout Sarasota. She said one of her top priorities is to earn the trust of the community.

A major asset for DiPino, as she starts the post in Sarasota, is her experience adjusting a police force’s responsibilities and priorities with the fluctuating tide of a resort town. Ocean City is a small town, but in the summertime, it becomes the second-largest city in the state of Maryland, noted Harmel.

“She knows the climate of how populations can increase and decrease and how manpower needs to adjust,” Harmel said.

DiPino also brings a high-tech edge to Sarasota’s police department. She tweets police updates and safety tips. And she helped run the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association website.

Massey predicts that DiPino will be able to inspire younger officers in Sarasota, as well.

“One day, if she is still there (in Sarasota), when she is ready to retire, she will have some young officer ready to replace her,” Massey said.

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