Whither the Police Complaint Committee?

The lobby of the Sarasota Police Department looks out over the 9/11 Memorial and Payne Park. Photo by Norman Schimmel

After a tumultuous first year, Sarasota’s Police Complaint Committee is struggling to find a future. The resignation of its two most vocal members earlier this year and the inability to recruit two replacements casts a cloud over the committee’s functions.

Before the committee’s Aug. 22 meeting, the skies opened into a downpour of rain and thunder, an ominous sign. Earlier the group was poised for a showdown with the Sarasota police chief over access to information and adequacy of punishment for errant cops. But in Wednesday’s gloom, the fight seemed to be gone.

A reduction in funding is looming, with city commissioners cutting the budget for staff support by half. Peter Graham is administrator for both the complaint committee (which meets monthly) and the larger Independent Police Advisory Committee (which meets quarterly).

The complaint committee examines old police complaint files, looks at the procedures for investigations and focuses on eventual resolution. Every month, the committee receives six or more old cases investigated by the Sarasota Police Department’s Internal Affairs Division. The head of unit – Lt. John LeBlanc – attends the meetings.

For the past several months, members have been pleased with the conduct of the investigations but upset with the “punishments” rendered to officers who failed to do their duty or meet standards. For example, one officer failed for a month to report an accusation of child abuse involving a 2-year old girl; punishment was a lecture by a superior.

In three cases Wednesday, LeBlanc agreed with the committee, saying the punishments were not in keeping with the nature of the complaints, but higher authority had overridden him.

Rank-and-file police officers are not charmed by having a committee of civilians looking at past disciplinary cases. “We have hundreds of policies and general orders that you know nothing about,” LeBlanc said. “That’s why I oversee the investigations.”

“If you weren’t here, we’d be wandering in the dark,” said committee member Hal McDuffie.

“In the dark” is where the chairman of the Independent Police Advisory Panel is. Elmer Berkel spoke to the complaint committee Aug. 22, saying, “By October, I hope you’ll have formulated some position. These are two entirely different things with different charges and different rules. I don’t see how we can combine them. Maybe we should split them even more.”

Right now the complaint committee reports quarterly to the independent panel. Additionally, the complaint committee must file an annual report with the City Commission.

“We want the input of this group before the independent panel makes a policy recommendation,” said Berkel.

The plea fell on deaf ears. The three remaining complaint committee members sat mute. Graham broke the silence, saying, “I’ll put this in the minutes and we can talk about it in September before their October meeting.”

While the complaint committee has feuded with the Police Department, and specifically with Chief Mikel Hollaway, the independent panel has used subcommittees to look at ways to defuse police-civilian clashes.

“Eileen Normile’s report on domestic violence restored the victim advocate position at the department,” said Graham, using an example. “The police response when they got the report was, ‘We needed that.’”

Another subcommittee is looking at the value of “mediation” as an option to filing a formal complaint. “I don’t think all is looking grim,” said Graham, a former Hong Kong policeman.