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Arts and Entertainment Monday, Nov. 12, 2012 9 years ago

SPD wrong to arrest homeless man for charging cell phone

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by: Joe Hendricks

 

 

I wasn’t planning on doing any writing today, but I could only shake my head in disbelief when I visited the Sarasota Herald-Tribune website and read the cover story about a homeless man being arrested for “stealing utilities” Sunday night because he was charging his cell phone at an electrical outlet in the Gillespie Park gazebo.

Thankfully, Judge Charles Wilson dismissed the case against 28-year-old Darren Kersey on Monday, citing “a lack of probable cause” in Sgt. Anthony Frangioni’s bogus arrest. 

Kersey spent Sunday night in jail and had to post a $500 bond to get out. Capt. Paul Sutton told the Herald-Tribune that the department would be reviewing the case.

It is also possible that the American Civil Liberties Union will get involved and file a lawsuit on Kersey's behalf. If so, the city taxpayers will cover the cost of the city's legal expenses and any financial settlements reached. 

Sergeant Frangioni’s actions not only display a lack of common sense and compassion, but also illustrate the unjust socio-economic profiling policies employed by some Sarasota police officers. 

It seems as though the Sarasota Police Department and Sgt. Frangioni are trying to outdo city commissioners in regard to coming up with ill-conceived and embarrassing solutions to resolving issues pertaining to Sarasota’s homeless community. Removing the park benches in Five Points Park made our city commissioners look petty and short-sighted. Now our police department ups the ante by arresting a homeless man for charging his cell phone.

After reading the Herald-Tribune story, reader Mikie Cahill astutely posted two comments that demand answers from police department and city officials.

 1. “Is there any signage telling people they can't charge their cell phones and/or not use the outlets?
2.  “I guess it is OK to charge your Electric Car at the city's expense, but not your cell phone.”

 

 After reading about this ridiculous arrest, I drove down to Gillespie Park to see if there are any signs posted in the gazebo pertaining to the use of electrical outlets.

No, there are not any signs anywhere in the park warning against the use of either of the gazebo’s two electrical outlets. The only sign posted inside the gazebo warns that the consumption of alcohol is prohibited. Other signs located in the park warn of cleated shoes, radio-controlled airplanes and motorized vehicles not being allowed. Dog owners are expected to clean up after their pets and the park is closed from 11 p.m. until 5 a.m. Mr. Kersey was arrested at 9:20 p.m., so he wasn’t even trespassing.

When I arrived at the Gillespie Park around 3 p.m. on Monday afternoon there were two Sarasota police cruisers parked in front of the police station at the southwest corner of the park. The substation and the gazebo are separated by a distance of 50 yards or less.

I located the outlet that prompted the arrest and plugged in my laptop with the cord strung in clear view between the outlet and the table where I sat. While I was there “stealing utilities” in plain sight of anyone that walked by two police officers exited the substation, got in their cruisers and drove away.

Neither officer approached me about my blatant act of electricity theft, nor did they seem to notice a group of young people passing around a couple joints and making no effort to conceal their activities.

I guess it's okay to use the outlets as long as you don't look too blatantly homeless. Or as long as Sgt. Frangioni doesn't witness the egregious offense taking place.

 

One homeless person I spoke with questioned why the city put electrical outlets in the park in the first place if park users are not allowed to use them. This person was charging their phone when the question was posed. It's a good question and one that city commissioners need to address. 

In his Herald-Tribune story, reporter Lee Williams mentions that cell phones are often the only lines of communication that exist between the homeless and their family members (as well as friends, and in some cases, employers or potential employers).

Williams also mentioned that one park user charges her electric wheelchair at the gazebo. Will she be arrested next?  

In regard to the electrical car charging stations, I called the city in an attempt to find out how much those free chargers cost the city each month, but City Hall was closed for Veterans Day and I was unable to get that answer. 

When the free charging stations were recently put in place I was surprised that the City would allow folks to charge their cars free of charge. Set against that fact, arresting someone for “stealing utilities” seems even more ridiculous when the city gives away large amounts of free electricity to respectable Prius owners.  

This needless arrest reeks of harassment on behalf of Sgt. Frangioni. Would this have happened to anyone but a homeless person? Frangioni's boss, Police Chief Mikel Holloway, should be embarrassed by his officer's performance and Frangioni should be disciplined for exhibiting poor judgement in the line of duty.

After taking over as police chief, Holloway, a longtime member of the Sarasota Police Department, promised a police department that would be more in touch with the community it serves. That vision remains a promise unfulfilled as the Chief winds down his tenure with the city.  

Kersey’s arrest follows on the heels of SPD officer Scott Patrick being fired for repeatedly punching a suspect in the head while making an arrest near the Ivory Lounge in downtown Sarasota. 

In January, Lt. Steve Breakstone had an injunction filed against him for stalking and harassing his ex-wife.  

And who can forget the 2009 Juan Perez case in which officer Christopher Childers was captured on video kicking a handcuffed and intoxicated prisoner after he climbed out the back window of Childers’ squad car while Childers sat in the front seat of the parked car working on his in-car computer. 

The Childers incident cost Childers and former Police Chief Peter Abbott their jobs in 2010, but was  anybody really surprised when the city’s sham of a citizen review panel gave Childers his job back in September – with more than two years of back pay thrown in for good measure?  

Are these the kind of officers we want protecting and serving our city? I don’t think so.

 

I had high hopes that the Sarasota Police Department would become a kinder, gentler police force under the leadership of Chief Holloway. I now pin my hopes on incoming Police Chief Bernadette DiPino, who takes over as the city’s top cop in January when Holloway retires. 

I hope DiPino will bring sensibility and a sense of sympathy to a police department much in need of a positive personality infusion. When speaking to Williams for the Herald-Tribune story, DiPino would not comment directly on Sgt. Frangioni’s actions, but she did say that she “hopes to implement a community-based strategy for dealing with the homeless, in which civilians who are aware of the local resources can intervene, rather than police.”

That sounds logical to me.  

The newspaper also reports that DiPino “envisions social workers helping the homeless find clothing, food, shelter, medical care and counseling.” DiPino went on to say, "That's the direction to take. Getting help and problem solving is community policing at its finest. Arrests will always be an option, but sometimes there are better ways of handling things."

DiPino sounds like a wise woman and I look forward to her arrival in Sarasota. It’s a shame that a city as wonderful as Sarasota is reduced to being a laughing stock due to our elected leaders and police officials' inability to deal with homelessness as a social and economic issue rather than a criminal offense.

It’s equally sad that a police department that claims to be among the best in Florida (especially when lobbying to keep their financially unsustainable pension plan) has enough free time on their hands to arrest a homeless man for simply charging his cell phone.

I say farewell to Mr. Holloway and his policies and wish him well in his retirement. I hope Ms. DiPino cleans house when she gets here, ridding her new police department of the “bad apples” and creating a culture that leads to a more human and humane police department. The citizens of Sarasota deserve no less. 

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