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Sarasota Thursday, Sep. 2, 2010 7 years ago

Panel debates racial makeup

by: Robin Roy City Editor

Regarding a permanent police panel, the Police Advisory Panel and City Hall have shifted their focus to two contentious issues: the scope of power and the ethnic makeup of the permanent panel.

“I don’t want it to be white elitist,” said Dr. James Unnever, a police panel adviser. “It needs to be the voice of the community.”

During an Aug. 26 meeting designed to settle differences between the Police Advisory Panel, city management and the police department, Unnever focused on what he said was distrust between the minority community and police officers.

“Who do the police arrest most? Minorities,” he said.

Panel member Dan Bailey took exception to that assessment.

“(Police) primarily arrest people committing crimes,” said Bailey.

Unnever maintained that if the panel addresses issues that deal with minorities, it should be mandatory that minorities sit on the board. He advocated that minorities with criminal records should sit on the panel, because they have experience with police.

“Without an African-American on (the panel) it is nearly racist,” he said.

City Manager Bob Bartolotta, though, said he did not want to enact a quota system.

“You’ve got to have a little trust that we believe in diversity,” he said.

In terms of finding permanent panel members, the city proposes that a super majority of commissioners appoint a chairperson, then the chair and city manager would solicit the community for four additional members. The idea is not yet commission-approved.

The chair and the city manager would submit 10 finalists to the commission, which would then choose the four remaining panel members.

Unnever insisted, though, that that vetting process would only spit out white men as potential members.

“Where do you get that?” Bartolotta asked him.

Unnever said the vetting process would discount black people with criminal records.

But nowhere in the city’s proposal does it state that a criminal record would eliminate any potential panel member. Instead, Bartolotta said that he wants to avoid choosing anyone with a personal agenda or anyone who is suing the city.

“I have no problem with someone with a criminal record being on the panel,” said panel member Wayne Genthner. “They’ve got street cred.”

Bartolotta responded: “This panel has to represent the whole community and have credibility everywhere.”

The two black members of the Police Advisory Panel raised no objection as to how the permanent panel was chosen.

“I don’t care how the panel is made up, as long as they’re the right people,” said Barbara Langston.

Another debate about the permanent police panel centered on how much power it would have.

Several panel members insisted that it get a say in the police department’s budget.

“Maybe the commission would like some additional citizen input on the budget,” said Bailey.

Bartolotta resisted, saying the panel should focus on officers’ relationship with the community, not day-to-day operations.

“It’s not about micromanaging the police department,” said panel Chairwoman Susan Chapman, who said it was more about seeing how taxpayer dollars are spent.

The police panel was formed in November as a result of the June 2009 incident in which a police officer kicked a handcuffed Hispanic suspect. The City Commission tasked the panel with rebuilding trust between the community and the Sarasota Police Department.

Despite the two disagreements Aug. 26, over which the City Commission will have the final say, the panel said it was pleased that City Hall carefully considered its input.

“I think we’ve come a long way, and I want to congratulate you,” said panel adviser Peter Graham.

The permanent police panel will advise the City Commission and make recommendations on global policy matters, such as:

• Homeless issues
• Noise issues
• Surveillance cameras
• Community-oriented policing
• Area-wide initiatives, such as those on the North Trail
• Mental-health issues
• Alternatives to incarceration

The permanent panel will not deal with issues under the authority of the police chief or city manager, such as:
• Operating budget
• Personnel
• Discipline
• Resource allocation
• Hiring or firing
• Day-to-day operations

The city changed some wording in the panel’s recommendation about filing complaints against police officers to make it sound less intimidating.

Current language states that if someone intentionally lies about an officer’s actions that person will be guilty of a first-degree misdemeanor and will be punished according to state laws.

Panel members felt the wording was too threatening and may dissuade people from filing complaints.

The offices of the city and state attorney, however, wanted to make it clear that someone making a false statement could be punished, so the two sides agreed to soften the wording to say: “I understand any false allegations may subject me to prosecution.”

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