| Sarasota Herald-Tribune
The Sarasota Police Department whistleblower who made an anonymous complaint against Chief Bernadette DiPino warned city officials that if an officer or detective – and not the chief – had said they wanted to use a Taser on a mentally ill homeless man for creating a minor ruckus, “the comment would be met with a harsh punishment.”
“She has disciplined officers for verbal discourtesy for far more minor offensive or insensitive remarks to citizens,” the anonymous officer said in an email. “Very inappropriate for a leader to make light of such an individual publicly in front of officers, no less joke about a use of force against them for no reason.”
The complaint about DiPino was sent via email Dec. 30 to Stacie Mason, the city’s Human Resources director. The Herald-Tribune obtained a copy Wednesday through a public records request.
It touched off a chain of events that continues to reverberate.
A story published Tuesday in the Herald-Tribune detailed how DiPino joked about using a Taser on a mentally ill homeless man who heckled her officers during a special performance by the Sarasota Opera Nov. 18.
After the performance, as the crowd was walking back into the building, DiPino allegedly turned to a group of officers and said: “Anybody have a Taser they can give me so I can get rid of him?”
In the complaint, the whistleblower stated that he or she needed anonymity because, “I would be retaliated against by my supervisor, and or, my division commander if they were to find out I had discussed this situation.”
“This incident although brief has weighed on my mind heavily for some time and I feel it must be addressed and brought to light.”
The whistleblower described DiPino’s words as an “inappropriate, demeaning and degrading comment from the city’s top officer regardless of if it was a joke or not.”
“Many officers have found her statements insensitive and out of line but will not come forward due to fear of retaliation from the chief or her staff,” the whistleblower wrote. “Please hold all your employees accountable to the same level of professionalism.
“There should be one set of rules for everyone regardless of position or rank.”
The complaint included the names of 26 police department employees who witnessed the event.
According to emails obtained by the Herald-Tribune, the HR director forwarded the complaint to City Manager Marlon Brown and Deputy City Manager Pat Robinson.
“Please immediately look into this matter to confirm if indeed this statement was made, including speaking to the chief, and brief both myself and the deputy city manager when completed,” Brown replied.
Once the initial HR interview was completed, according to a counseling letter obtained by the Herald-Tribune, Brown met with DiPino Jan. 11 and “discussed the complaint and the seriousness of such actions.”
“The chief did admit to making such statement and was directed to apologize to staff about this statement. Interim City Manager Brown counseled the chief on the impact of her words and actions and discussed expectations moving forward,” the document states. “The actions by department heads must be in line with the values of the city; accountability, respect, integrity, teamwork. If they are not, it does have a negative impact on the departments’ teams.”
DiPino was ordered to take compliance and ethics training on an annual basis, so she can “stay in line” with the city’s “accepted values.”
DiPino declined to be interviewed for this story.
Instead, through her spokeswoman Genevieve Judge, DiPino said the statement she provided through Judge Tuesday would suffice for this story.
Judge said previously the chief was “made aware of the complaint last Monday.”
“City Manager Marlon Brown counseled her in reference to the complaint,” Judge wrote earlier.
ACLU, NAACP and NAMI
At a City Commission meeting Tuesday, Michael Barfield, president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, called for DiPino to be fired.
“In my opinion, Chief DiPino can no longer lead this agency,” Barfield told the commissioners. “She has tarnished the department and the city, and all the work that has been done by this commission and others in the public to address homelessness have now gone backwards. This is not a joke. It is serious misconduct that disqualifies her from holding that position.”
Barfield, too, noted that DiPino has not been transparent about her comments.
“Where is DiPino now? Hunkered down, refusing to comment or to go on camera to answer the public outcry,” he said. “Now we know how Chief DiPino truly feels about the homeless, notwithstanding her many public comments to the contrary.”
Trevor Harvey, who has been president of the Sarasota County Branch of the NAACP since 2005, said he has refrained from commenting until all the facts became known.
“My thoughts when I first read it – I was appalled, because I know how hard we have worked in the community to make sure our homeless population is equally served like the greater community,” Harvey said. “For that to come from a law enforcement officer I consider a friend – I was very disappointed that our chief would make those comments jokingly or not. It’s unacceptable, inexcusable for the head of any law enforcement agency to make those comments, especially given how those of us in the civil rights community feel about Tasers.
“When you have a community of color or another underserved population like the homeless, to make comments like that was completely inexcusable.”
Colleen Thayer, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) for Sarasota and Manatee Counties, said she was “disappointed” when she learned what the police chief had said.
“Not just NAMI, but anyone in the mental health field works hard to make sure people know that mental illness is like any other health care issue, and that people don’t choose it,” Thayer said. “Comments like that are very hurtful and can lead to more discrimination, and we really try hard to stop that.”
Contact topics editor Lee Williams at email@example.com.
Reporter Timothy Fanning contributed to this story.
Published at Thu, 21 Jan 2021 00:00:00 +0000