Most serious types of crime down 16% in city of Sarasota in 2023, with no homicides reported

Sarasota Police Chief Troche and senior officers present annual report to City Commission

Chief Rex Troche (far right) and division commanders appear before the Sarasota City Commission on Feb. 20: (From right, next to Troche) Capt. Robert Armstrong, Capt. Ken Rainey, Capt. Jonathan Todd of Criminal Investigations, and Lt. Richie Schwieterman of Support Services.  News Leader image

The year 2023 marked the first time since 1967 that no homicides were recorded in the city of Sarasota, Sarasota Police Chief Rex Troche told the City Commission during a Feb. 20 presentation, as part of the board’s regular meeting.

At that statement, applause rang out in the Commission Chambers within City Hall in downtown Sarasota. When it ended, Troche pointed out, “We had to go so far back that we were looking at 3 x 5 index cards,” to find the last time that was an annual statistic for the city.

“This has been an incredible year,” he said.

Additionally, Troche noted, the most serious types of crime — what the FBI used to label “Part 1” incidents — decreased by 16.2% in the city in 2023. “That’s the largest decrease since 1999,” he added.

Typically, he explained, police personnel talk about trying to lower the rates for those crimes by 3% or 5% year-over-year.

Showing the commissioners a slide, he explained that the Part 1 crimes are murder, rape/forcible sex crimes, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, and motor vehicle theft.

Image courtesy Sarasota Police Department

In 2022, the city had a total of 2,105 such crimes, the slide noted; the 2023 figure was 1,765.

The only category that saw an uptick in 2023 was rape/forcible sex crimes, which climbed from 25 in 2022 to 28 in 2023.

On the other hand, the slide pointed out that burglary incidents dropped 36.8%, and larceny was down 14.9%.

Noting that motor vehicle thefts declined 21.3%, Troche pointed out that when Hyundai and Kia thefts were rising nationwide, “We got on that really fast [in Sarasota].”

Troche emphasized that the statistics he was presenting were a result of “a team effort.” He referenced the senior staff members next to him, facing the commission dais, along with numerous officers in the audience.

“Many agencies across the country would love to have these numbers,” Troche added.

His response to the data, he continued, was to focus on why the numbers went down. “We want to create this year after year after year.”

As explained by his senior staff, multiple factors contributed to the statistics. Those included double-digit increases in arrests and a 133.4% hike in drug charges, as well as what Capt. Robert Armstrong, commander of the Patrol Division, referred to as the culture of the department.

Image courtesy Sarasota Police Department

Reminding the commissioners that 18 new members joined the agency in 2023, Armstrong pointed out that the Police Department’s recruiter has been hiring officers with prior experience. “They come in with a whole set of tools. … They’re easier to train, and they can be fast-tracked.”

Moreover, he continued, “Morale is up. There is a feeling of family. [Officers] are having a great time.”

Armstrong also talked of regular focus group meetings with the representatives of the police officers’ union and the installation of an internal “suggestion box” that can be used to address issues that arise.

Further, Armstrong explained, “The officers understand the core values and understand the expectations from the very beginning.”

The department also is utilizing data to determine how best to direct its resources, he said. With the available staffing, he noted, the agency can put two officers per car in a zone where indications have shown the potential for crime.

Turning to the use of body-worn cameras, Armstrong emphasized, “This is pretty awesome for … public transparency and community awareness.”

The department also is using training officers in the field, he said, and putting “a lot of [Chevrolet] Tahoes on the road,” making the Police Department’s presence felt in the city.

Additionally, Armstrong noted that members of the Traffic and Marine units spend a lot of time educating the public, instead of writing citations, with the goal of preventing crashes and fatalities.

He also told the commissioners that the department’s Homeless Outreach Team has become known across the United States for its best practices, leading other agencies to send representatives to Sarasota to shadow the Police Department team members.

Community Policing efforts have contributed, as well, to the decline in crime, he pointed out.

In July 2023, Armstrong noted, the agency created a Community Relations Unit, which handled 60 events through the end of the year. The members of that unit work with students in schools, he said, focusing on intervention and the prevention of crime.

Image courtesy Sarasota Police Department

Further, a seven-person Community Response Team was established to focus on the traditionally African American community of Newtown. “I am in constant communication with them any time something goes on,” he added of those team members. They also have been invited to meetings to discuss operations before those take place, Armstrong said.

Yet other agency efforts involve children and youth, he noted.

The work of Internal Affairs

Following Armstrong’s remarks, Capt. Ken Rainey, who leads the Professional Standards Division, presented the agency’s Internal Affairs data:

  • The number of formal investigations fell 75% year-over-year, from 12 in 2022 to three in 2023.
  • The number of informal investigations declined 15%, from 61 in 2022 to 52 in 2023.
  • The number of investigative inquiries dropped 111%, from 78 in 2022 to 37 in 2023.
  • The total number of investigations was down 21% from 2022 to 2023.

“All complaints are thoroughly investigated,” Rainey told the commissioners. The Police Department gets complaints both from within and outside the agency, he added. It even has a portal on its website, where complaints can be filed.

The review of video produced by the body-worn cameras has been critical, he indicated, in determining whether officers have been guilty of misconduct.

Rainey also noted that, following much discussion, he and Chief Troche agreed to place a kiosk in the Patrol briefing room, so officers can review information about closed Internal Affairs investigations.

The slide that Rainey showed the commissioners with information about the kiosk explained, “The goal of sharing these documents is for officers to develop a deeper understanding of agency expectations and accountability, as well as limit the distribution of false information.”

Rainey added that he believes access to those materials “contributes to the culture that Capt. Armstrong was alluding to in his presentation.”

Numerous members of the Sarasota Police Department join others in the Commission Chambers for the Feb. 20 presentation. Image courtesy Sarasota Police Department

Additionally, Rainey talked about specific types of training that officers receive, including the agency’s implementation of the Georgetown Law School’s Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement (ABLE) program.

The law school does not accept just any department for that training initiative, he explained. “We had to demonstrate longstanding community involvement.”

The Sarasota Chapter of the NAACP and the Light of the World Church both sent letters to Georgetown Law, Rainey said, endorsing the department’s application for ABLE.

The Georgetown Law School webpages regarding ABLE explain, “Years of academic research and on-the-ground experience has shown us that effective active bystandership can be taught. The Center for Innovations in Community Safety, partnering with global law firm Sheppard Mullin, has created ABLE* (Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement) to prepare officers to successfully intervene to prevent harm and to create a law enforcement culture that supports peer intervention.”

The webpages add, “ABLE is a national hub for training, technical assistance, and research, all with the aim of creating a police culture in which officers routinely intervene — and accept interventions — as necessary to:

  • “Prevent misconduct,
  • “Avoid police mistakes, and
  • “Promote officer health and wellness.”

Moreover, Rainey said, training has focused on how to reduce the use of force. In 2023, he pointed out, officers used force during 197 incidents, which marked a 13.2% reduction, compared to the figure for 2022.

Image courtesy Sarasota Police Department

At the conclusion of the presentation Chief Troche told the commissioners, “We’re not done yet.”

One new focus, he said, is the prevention of traffic fatalities; the city had 14 of those in 2023.

The Police Department is working with the Florida Department of Transportation and other organizations to come up with ideas on how best to address that issue, Troche added.

Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch did take the opportunity to tell Troche, “One of the complaints that I hear very, very often” is about speeding. When she asked him what the commissioners could do to help the Police Department deal with that, Troche initially replied, with a smile, that residents could listen to his podcast, indicating that he routinely talks about speeding and other traffic issues.

Additionally, he suggested that people take what he called an “internal approach” to the problem in their neighborhoods: identifying the culprits and encouraging them to slow down, for the safety of children, for example. “People can call each other out. Sometimes being embarrassed is the way to go.”

However, Troche added, based on his review of department data, he has determined, “A lot of speeding is perceived.” In fact, he told Ahearn-Koch, he has found himself watching vehicles go by, thinking they were traveling too fast. “I do it in my neighborhood all the time.”

Still, he pointed out, communication is a big factor in reducing speeding.