Action follows reports of complaint filed with city over comment she made about homeless person during November 2020 event
On the afternoon of Jan. 19, the president of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida appeared before the Sarasota City Commission during the Citizens Input portion of the board’s afternoon session.
“I’m disappointed to be here today to ask that this commission hold its appointed police chief accountable,” Michael Barfield of Sarasota told the commissioners.
He then talked of a report that, during an outdoor event, Chief Bernadette DiPino had “asked to borrow a Taser so she could ‘get rid of’ a mentally ill homeless person.”
“Ten years ago,” Barfield continued, “on the eve of Chief DiPino’s arrival here … the city faced a credibility crisis when it was discovered that officers on the night shift were routinely texting each other about going out and ‘bum hunting’ for homeless people.”
That was just one incident involving officers’ inappropriate conduct toward the homeless, Barfield said, adding that there were “too many to recount.”
“The city remains under a federal court ordered … consent decree,” he pointed out, which resulted from a civil suit filed over the city’s treatment of homeless persons.
“Now we know how Chief DiPino truly feels about the homeless, notwithstanding her many public comments to the contrary,” Barfield added. “In my opinion, Chief DiPino can no longer lead the agency. 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.”
Her comment in November 2020, Barfield emphasized, “is not a joke. It’s serious misconduct that disqualifies her from holding that position …”
In the wake of continued news media reports about the incident Barfield referenced that day, the City of Sarasota announced on Jan. 27 that, effective as of 5 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 29, DiPino would be resigning.
“City Manager Marlon Brown has accepted the resignation and executed a separation agreement on behalf of the city,” a news release reported.
“The process of appointing an interim chief of police will begin immediately,” the release pointed out.
That separation agreement noted that DiPino formally entered into employment with the city on Nov. 16, 2012. “City will grant DiPino one service weapon of her selection that was assigned to her during her active employment as Police Chief to retain in her personal possession along with her City of Sarasota Police Badge,” the agreement notes. The city also agreed that, no later than Feb. 19, it would pay her “in a lump sum an amount equivalent to 982.5 hours of pay” at her current salary level “for accrued time,” including holidays. Further, the agreement said, she will receive “a lump sum” equal to five months’ pay. She also is to receive that by Feb. 19.
Responding to a request for the information, city Communications Specialist Jason Bartolone told The Sarasota News Leader that DiPino’s annual salary is $182,996.32. As calculated by the city’s Human Resources Department, he added, her five months of severance pay will be $76,248.47; her accrued leave adds up to $86,439.37.
“I’d like to express my sincere thanks to the chief for her eight years of service to the City of Sarasota,” City Manager Brown said in the news release. “Through her leadership and dedicated efforts with community policing she helped reduce crime by nearly 40% and strengthened trust between residents and officers through extensive community outreach initiatives from the Citizens Police Academy to Coffee with a Cop and family movie nights on the [Sarasota Police Department] lawn,” Brown added in the release. “The [Police Department] has many initiatives ahead, including the implementation of body worn cameras, and I will immediately begin the process of appointing an interim chief of police,” Brown said.
Details of the complaint
In response to another News Leader request, City of Sarasota Senior Communications Manager Jan Thornburg provided the publication a copy of a document regarding the incident that Barfield of the ACLU referred to on Jan. 19.
The document said, “An anonymous complaint was received via email on December 30, 2020, about a statement made by the Chief of Police DiPino after a Sarasota Opera event that was held on November 18, 2020. During this outdoor performance, [an] individual rode up on a bicycle and mimicked the singers and made a mild disturbance. The complaint (via email) stated ‘While walking into the building and in front of at least a half dozen officers the chief of police [asked] the group if she could borrow someone’s Taser, motioning to the mentally handicapped individual.’”
The document added that about 26 individuals were witnesses to the statement DiPino made.
The Police Department posted a video, about 1 minute long, on its Facebook page on Nov. 18, 2020, with an expression of appreciation to the Sarasota Opera for its lunchtime performance. DiPino can be seen in the group of personnel outside the department headquarters on Adams Lane in downtown Sarasota.
After receiving the complaint, the document continued, then-Interim City Manager Brown met with DiPino on Jan. 11, the document noted. He discussed with her the allegation about the incident “and the seriousness of such actions,” the document said. “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].”
Under the heading “Impact of occurrence on group or team performance (ifapplicable),” the document added, “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.”
Finally, under the heading “Additional training or equipment requirements (if applicable),” the document said, “Compliance training and ethics will be mandatory trainings on an annual basis to stay in line with our accepted values.”
Getting to work a day early
In October 2012, then-City Manager Tom Barwin introduced DiPino as the new police chief. Barwin himself was relatively new in the job, having been hired in July 2012.
Although she officially was to begin work on Jan. 1 2013, DiPino actually went on duty on New Year’s Eve of 2012, as the News Leader reported.
Then, on Jan. 5, 2013 — just five days later — then-News Leader City Editor Stan Zimmerman wrote, “[S]he was addressing grassroots leaders at the Coalition of City Neighborhood Associations.”
Zimmerman’s report of that appearance continued thus:
“‘I have three priorities: visibility, to strictly enforce the law and professionalism,’” she said.
“True to the word she gave panelists during the selection process last fall, she handed out new business cards with her cell phone number. ‘It’s not for emergencies. That’s 911. This is for telling me stuff you think I need to know,’ she said. ‘It’s the phone that’s in my purse,’” Zimmerman added, quoting DiPino.
Next, on Jan. 8, 2013, Zimmerman continued, DiPino appeared at a town hall meeting at the Robert L. Taylor Community Complex in north Sarasota.
“Even in uniform with the patent leather utility belt,” Zimmerman wrote, “she looks like a pre-teen dressing in daddy’s work clothes. But appearances deceive. She went from rookie to chief in 17 years, and she stayed a chief for a decade longer. A special weapons and tactics team leader, narcotics detective, undercover operator — there is little she has not done with distinction.”
DiPino served as chief of the Ocean City, Md., Police Department before applying for the Sarasota law enforcement position.
Statements to the members of the community
In a statement incorporated within the city’s announcement of her resignation, DiPino said, “It’s been my privilege to serve as the Chief of Police for the City of Sarasota. I am proud of my 35 years of honorable service as a law enforcement officer.”
She added, “We have accomplished so much in the last eight years. I am proud of the hard work and dedication of our civilian and sworn staff. Being a fourth-generation law enforcement officer, I am looking forward to the opportunity to continue to serve the law enforcement field in another capacity. I have made many friends and developed so many positive relationships here in Sarasota, it will be hard to say goodbye.”
DiPino further noted, “I believe I am leaving the Sarasota Police Department in good standing for the next chief. This has been a bittersweet decision, but I know the men and women of the Sarasota Police Department will continue to keep the City of Sarasota a safe place to live, work, and play.”
“Chief DiPino has been a devoted public servant to this city, and we appreciate her many contributions to the safety and wellbeing of our community,” said Mayor Hagen Brody in the release. “We wish her the best on her future endeavors.”
A day later, Kafi Benz, president of the Sarasota County Council of Neighborhood Associations (CONA), sent an email to DiPino, on which she copied City Manager Brown and the commissioners.
Benz wrote, “Thank you for your dedicated service to Sarasota. You brought enlightened changes to the department that made such a profound difference to your community and established truly ‘community’ policing that has been greatly admired and appreciated.
“We regret your decision to resign, as many more years of your service and wise leadership has been presumed as an integral factor to the continuing improvement of the community.
“We hope that your next professional step will be making your approach and methods well known throughout the nation. The changes you have wrought in Sarasota should stand as examples of their benefit,” Benz concluded her note.
Following the city’s announcement about DiPino’s resignation decision, the Sarasota Police Department also released a statement from DiPino to members of the community.
“It’s been my privilege to serve as the Chief of Police for the city of Sarasota,” DiPino wrote.
“Together in the eight years I have served as Chief,” she continued, “we have partnered to reduced crime in the city of Sarasota by 37.7%. Violent offenses are down 16.5% and property offenses are down 40.8%. We adopted a philosophy of community policing, implemented the Drug Market Initiative (DMI) to eliminate open-air drug markets, created a Homeless Outreach Team, and began the Turn Your Life Around (TYLA) diversion program. We have worked hard to build relationships and restore trust with our community.
“I am proud to have hired more than 129 officers and increased diversity in our agency,” she added. “I began a bi-annual community luncheon to meet with community leaders, business owners, and community service organizations to keep lines of communication open between us and our community.”
Along with naming initiatives City Manager Brown had mentioned in the news release, DiPino noted, “Our Body Worn Camera program is underway and expected to be launched this year along with a Restorative Justice Initiative for theft/shoplifting cases which has plans in the making to launch in 2021. We partnered with community leaders to create a Behavioral Health Response Team to have a program for high-need individuals and their families with behavioral health needs. A service that will focus on providing a system of care within our community for those who are in crisis with behavioral health needs. Our agency was honored with the [International Association of Chiefs of Police] IACP/Body Worn Leadership in Law Enforcement Volunteer Program Award, the IACP Leadership in Human and Civil Rights Award, the IACP Chief David Leadership in Environmental Crimes Award and we were chosen to be the Law Enforcement Agency of the Year from the Florida Bicycle Association in 2019.”
DiPino concluded the statement thus: “As many of you know I end letters and speeches with two words so I will say goodbye with be safe.”