Sarasota Police Complaint Committee tosses gauntlet

Four Spartans or four Don Quixotes?

Can these people make a difference? The Sarasota City Police Complaint Committee in action. Photo by Stan Zimmerman

What a year it’s been for the City of Sarasota’s Police Complaint Committee. At its first meeting June 29, 2011, the group spent an hour looking for a better name (and didn’t find one). At its May 23 meeting, the group spent more than an hour stewing over a memo from Chief of Police Mikel Hollaway and a second hour working on a hard-nosed annual report.

Meanwhile, the number of complaints dropped 40 percent between 2010 and 2011. While some complaints come from city residents, if an officer misses a court appointment, that automatically triggers an internal complaint.

But declining complaint numbers were not on committee members’ minds. Hollaway was. In late April, the committee sent him a five-page memorandum. “At the end of our first year of operation and after review of [Internal Affairs] and division-level investigations, the committee now offers the following advice as to improvement,” the memo said.

In case after case, punishment was deemed “inadequate” or “insufficient” or “unacceptable” or even “outrageous.” The committee faulted the format of reports and expressed concern about “an attitude of resentment that civilians have the capability or right to advise change to police orders and processes.”

Two weeks later Hollaway replied. “The factors that we take into account are not always reflected in the papers the committee sees,” he wrote. “I accept that, as members view it, the result may sometimes appear inappropriate, but I and the others involved take the greatest care to insure the action taken meets the circumstances of the case and takes into account the discipline history of the officer involved.”

The chief suggested the committee needs “a better understanding of the disciplinary process,” and suggested the members get briefings from the city attorney, the city’s Human Resources Department “and whomever else might help clear your minds on the subject.”

“The more I read it, the more irritated I became,” said Complaint Committee Chairman Ronald Riffel. “It was almost patronizing in my view. I was expecting something of more substance.”

Hollaway’s memo did extend an olive branch: “The establishment of the Police Complaint Committee came after a morale-weakening period in the department’s history, and some resentment was inevitable. In my view, subsequent events have proved that this was politically motivated, was based on a misunderstanding and was not necessary,” he wrote. “However the comments you have made during the year concerning the quality of our internal investigations and our overall professionalism have gone a long way towards improving the situation.”

Hollaway ended by offering to “attend one of your meetings in the near future to further our relationship.” He didn’t attend the May 23 meeting, but his boss – Interim City Manager Terry Lewis – was there.

Riffel wasn’t the only member in high dudgeon. “We’ve been shunned,” said Frank Brenner. “We were conceived as window-dressing with no powers. We’re being tolerated. I feel we’re spitting into the wind.”

“I don’t see much changing from the inside – police or city government — unless there is change from the outside,” said committee member Jerry Meketon.

“The cards were stacked against this committee from the beginning,” said committee member Glenda Williams. “It’s not just us and them. So now what?”

The year-end report

The “now what?” was a unanimous vote to forward a scathing annual report to the committee’s parent group – another civilian advisory board – the Independent Police Advisory Panel.  It’s another board in turmoil, meeting quarterly and still searching for a mission.

The complaint committee’s report is still in draft form, but it was approved by consensus. “Political will in support of our efforts has not been evident,” the draft says. “The chief has not sought input from the committee, and acknowledged to the chair that the committee had a serious [Sarasota Police Department] acceptance problem because it was founded on a recommendation by the Ad Hoc Police Advisory Panel.”

Under a section titled, “Overall impressions to date,” the draft says, “In our view contracts negotiated with the Police Benevolent Association hamper proper discipline of ‘rogue officers.’ Procedures to prove infractions are arduous. Threats of litigation and appeals of discipline action [sic] are so common that they are expected.”

The committee expressed disappointment with penalties once infractions were demonstrated. “In some instances the committee felt officers should have been dismissed and decertified when, in fact, they received only a few days off without pay. In one instance certification continued even after removal from the department. Reducing an officer’s rank or placing an officer on probation is rare to nonexistent,” the draft report says.

SPD Lt. John LeBlanc attends these meetings, as the officer in charge of the Internal Investigations and Complaints division. After the committee dust settled, he said, “I think we have made leaps and bounds of progress. Prior to this panel, complaints took a different route. Since then things now go directly to Internal Affairs and Complaints. I don’t see, from my perspective, things are as bad as you think they are. I see things have improved a great deal.”

Can three white men and one black woman stare down the Sarasota Police Department, and specifically the Police Benevolent Association? Stay tuned. The committee’s next meeting is June 27 at 5:30 p.m. in the old Federal Building.