After five years leading the department, the chief talks about SPD's accomplishments, challenges and plans for the future.
In her five years directing the Sarasota Police Department, Chief Bernadette DiPino has led the city’s adjustment into community-based policing, overseeing a shift in how officers interact with the people they’ve sworn to serve and protect. With the police, city government and nonprofits now aligned on reforms to assist Sarasota residents and keep them out of the criminal justice system, DiPino talked about successes and struggles with these changes during her first five years on the job and what she hopes to see five years from now.
Beginning on your first night with the department on Dec. 31, 2012 and through the start of 2018, what are some of the department’s biggest accomplishments?
I feel we’ve been able to accomplish a lot. There’s a lot more that I want to do. There were a lot of challenges when I first got here, from homelessness, to an image challenge with our agency. I think we’ve fought through a lot of that.
We ended up having to give up our accreditation, we had to fight to get that back. We had to transition with a number of our senior officers, and a number of our more senior officers are retiring. Also seeing the city growing as much as it has, to the challenges of homelessness, to other crime-related issues. I was faced with a lot. So was our agency. They had a new chief coming in from a different state who they didn’t know at all. I’m really proud of them, that they have been dealing with a lot of change over the past five years. That’s not easy to deal with, even good changes. I’m very happy with the progress that we’re making and I look forward to seeing what the next five years bring.
Was the transition difficult?
I’m from Maryland, I’m from the north, I’m the first female chief here. I came with a community policing philosophy that was just a little bit different than what they had been practicing before. I had a very definitive idea about how I wanted our police department to be professionally. I wanted us to do a lot of outreach. I wanted us to have a very professional image. Marketing our agency was very important to me, because that builds up relationships and trust and identity. I wanted people to know the Sarasota Police Department through the Blue + You community outreach program.
I also really believe in officer safety. That’s a huge priority for me, especially having a daughter that’s a police officer. I care about every officer in our agency as if they’re my own child, not looking at it paternalistically, but I have that same affection and care for them. It’s a family. I want them to go home to their family after every shift. Officer safety is important to me. That’s one of the reasons I believe in community policing, because community police practices help preempt danger and make people appreciate and understand law enforcement more and develop those trusts and relationships. That ultimately makes our police officers safer, because they’re willing to jump in and defend those police officers because they know that.
How has the department adjusted to the changes?
Police officers don’t like change, but they don’t like things the way they are. I give credit to that quote to (former Tampa Police Chief) Jane Castor, but that’s absolutely true. Even good change, police officers find challenging. That’s because they’re used to things the way that they are. But also they’re never really satisfied. They want to make things better. That’s what makes a good police officer. You want them to constantly want things to be better. That’s why I appreciate that. There were a lot of things that I wanted to do in this agency because we have great police officers that work here and I’m very proud of them. I feel fortunate to be the chief in this organization.
Some of the challenges that our officers are facing, they have very little to do with them. That includes the growth we’ve seen the last five years. Also, the responsibility of homelessness that’s been placed on the shoulders of police officers when it doesn’t belong with us, but it has been dropped on our laps. Then also mental health issues. Police officers are dealing with things that they really were not supposed to. We’re supposed to be law enforcement. We’re supposed to arrest people for breaking the law, write tickets when they speed, investigate crimes – that’s what we’re supposed to be doing. We have now taken up a lot of the social causes that the government hasn’t funded and that those entities don’t take responsibility for anymore. It’s been dropped on our laps. We’re no longer just teachers and mentors for kids, we’re now also helping people to find homes and jobs and do other things that we were not traditionally looked at for law enforcement.
When you took over, Sarasota was coming off the label by some media organizations as the “meanest city in America” to homeless people. How would you evaluate the department’s efforts to combat that reputation and make the city more accommodating for the homeless?
I’m really proud of that. We’ve been internationally recognized for that. We received a leadership award from the Human and Civil Rights Committee from the International Association of Chiefs of Police for our Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) and the program that we’ve had. We actually shared that with over 100 police chiefs in Philadelphia and what our program is. Now the county is adopting that same program. We’re just honored to share that with anybody who’s seen what we’ve done. It wasn’t an easy process. We went through a lot with that. We now are recognized and looked at as ‘you know what, the city of Sarasota is not the meanest. They’re actually the ones that are progressive.' Sometimes it takes those challenging situations like that, those low moments, to actually see what the character and capability of the community is. I think that’s very telling of the city of Sarasota, especially our police department.
"Sometimes it takes those challenging situations like that, those low moments, to actually see what the character and capability of the community is."
I give credit to Capt. Kevin Stiff, who is now retired, he’s our homeless outreach coordinator for the HOT team, and police legal advisor Joe Polzak, whose helped with the drafting and the ordinances through Bob Fournier's office, our city attorney. They have worked really hard. Again, our motto is 'one person at a time.' If we can help one person change that one person’s life, it’s a whole world that we’re changing. We have been able to do that. We’ve been able to reduce homelessness by about 60% over the last several years. We know that homelessness is always going to be there. We know our goal is not to end homelessness, which would be an ideal scenario we’d love, but I think our city and our police department and our other partners all see this as ‘you know what, we’re going to help people.’ Let’s see if we can get the housing-first program implemented. Let’s see if we can get people the mental health that they need and the addiction help that they need. The people that have been in our Homeless Outreach Team, or been associated with it have actually, because of all their hard work, are getting promoted and moving up within the organization, which is really telling to their commitment and devotion.
Practically, how has policing policy shifted, not just when it comes to assisting the homeless, but other criminal activities?
It’s shifted from arresting someone using a charger in public in the middle of the night to how can we help him, and knowing the resources are there. Our team is put together so an officer knows exactly what to do. Back then, they knew what to do. They arrest somebody if they did something wrong. Now we refer them to the services. We offer them a bed in the Salvation Army. I’m not saying they didn’t have those things then, but it’s a little bit different philosophy that we have now and educating our officers and training our officers toward that. It’s problem solving. Sometimes people think community policing is touchy feely ‘let’s be nice to the community.’ It’s actually about more than that. It’s about building relationships and trust, but it’s also about sharing the responsibility of crime fighting and the safety within the community and the businesses, but it’s also about problem solving and coming up with creative solutions.
We’ve done that over the last few years. Programs like TYLA, the Turn Your Life Around initiative, for prostitution. It’s not about arresting our way out of that situation. The DMI program, Drug Market Intervention. Let’s target the drug dealers and get them off the street to keep our community safe. The EEE program with the HOT team – educate, encourage and enforce. It’s ways of coming up with solutions we didn’t have in the past. Police officers in the past would have been like ‘they’re breaking the law, time to arrest them.’ Now we have other options.
Hiring high-quality officers is always a cause for concern, especially in light of a wave of upcoming retirements from senior officials with the department scheduled for later this year. To attract more officers, you’ve relaxed some educational requirements, but what are the other top priorities you look for when hiring officers?
No. 1, what I’ve told our recruiters and our hiring individuals is I want people of good character. That’s important because they’re going to do the right thing for the right reason, whether someone is watching them or not, so good character is vital. Secondly, I want to hire diversity. I want to hire people that mirror our community. We’ve been doing a pretty good job of that, people who are willing to be out in the community, engage in the community and be smart. We want smart police officers. You have to be physically fit, you have to be able to take care of yourself and be able to fight if necessary, but you also have to be smart. The smart police officers know there are sometimes better ways to handle things than arrest or just being involved in fights.
After five years with the department, what are some major issues and improvements you hope to see within the next five years?
I would like to see us with more staffing. I’d like to see our diversity mirror our community. I’ve challenged our recruiters to look at bringing in more individuals to the department because our city is growing. I see us expanding our training programs for officers, giving them more leadership programs and more opportunities to promote in the future. We have a number of people who are retiring. I have a captain and two lieutenants, which is going to open up a number of senior-level positions, so I’m excited about that and I’m also looking at bringing in more technology. I’m looking at bringing ways for the community to report things more to us, using their social media, and us being able to maybe, instead of officers taking reports for things, that maybe they can send that information into us. That will free up our officers to be more proactive and engaged in the community for problem solving, so we have a lot of things in the next five years.
I can’t imagine what’s going to happen in the next five years, but you can plan for it. I hope I never have to do another hurricane. I was told I was now officially a Florida chief, because I survived my first hurricane. Hopefully I never have to go through that again, but I’m really proud of our agency, and I’m really excited about the next five years for our citizens.