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Sarasota’s Police Advisory Panel — Some Thoughts

At the City of Sarasota’s Police Advisory Panel (PAP) public meeting on Dec. 28, Sgt. Kenneth Castro — a 28-year police veteran — admonished the panel for “disturbing” and “insulting” comments he felt some of its members had made about the Sarasota Police Department (SPD) in prior meetings. The panel — appointed by Sarasota City Commissioners last November in response to the summer 2009 police incident involving a police officer who was videotaped kicking a handcuffed suspect — is tasked with examining the practices of the SPD in connection with the use of force, and its relationship with residents, especially the minority community.

“We cannot allow you to continue to barrage our police officers,” Castro said, adding that such negative talk could affect the morale of the “troops” and possibly “demotivate” them on the job. Castro, who provided a lengthy, written document to the panel as well, questioned why the board was talking “about linchings [sic], and beatings by the law enforcement era of 40+ years ago,” and denied that racial profiling, a topic of discussion in prior meetings, occurs in the SPD.

If Castro harbored hopes of silencing police critics with his seven-page treatise, remarks made by two black Sarasotans during the public comment portion of the subsequent Jan. 11 meeting dashed them.

Sarasotan Jesse Johnson insisted that the racial profiling and harassment of blacks by the police is still very much an issue of today. “You talk about Jim Crow?” Johnson asked. “We’re going through the same thing now out of this department.” According to Johnson, if blacks in Newtown have the temerity to ask why they’re being stopped or arrested, they run the risk of being charged with resisting arrest. Newtown residents, Johnson said, are “going through pure hell” with the Sarasota police.

Gerald Green Sr. spoke about positive changes he’s observed in police interaction with the Newtown community over recent years, but maintained that “there are two faces to our law, regardless, and the problems still exist.” Green, who said he works with youth on the streets of Newtown, said he has witnessed the police “harassing people” and “pushing buttons unnecessarily.”

In addition to hearing from Castro and community members, the panel has spent considerable time discussing the idea of conducting surveys to determine the public’s level of confidence in the police department. But does the panel really need costly, time-consuming surveys to grasp the extent to which our community’s confidence was rocked by last summer’s video and the resulting botched handling by the police chief? While I’d wager that most Sarasotans are grateful for the hard, critical and often dangerous work our police force does to keep us safe and sound, I’d also wager that most Sarasotans, regardless of ethnicity, are seriously concerned about what last summer’s incident might suggest about our police department in particular and our community as a whole.

If we are to indeed “heal the wounds,” as another panel member suggested, it will not be accomplished by slapping on the tired-out Band-Aid of yet another survey. For a wound to heal, it must first be drained of any festering pus that lingers — even if it gets ugly, even if it hurts the feelings or morale of some police officers.

PAP members should forget about expensive surveys and focus instead on free, old-fashioned listening. People want to be heard: There is no shortage of folks lining up to discuss the SPD — positively and negatively. In fact, when Jesse Johnson spoke at the Jan. 11 meeting, he was interrupted after speaking for two minutes and reminded that he only had one minute remaining to address the panel — standard for all public comments. Johnson lamented the time constraint, saying he wished the panel provided “more time to tell the truth.”

And that’s precisely what the panel should do: Allow more time for more folks — white, black, Latino, police, citizens, young people, old people — to come forward and tell their own “truths.”

By specifically soliciting and encouraging a diversity of citizens to join the discussions, and significantly lengthening the time allotted for public comment, the panel could provide a long-needed forum for airing out the deep wounds and painful memories of a racially divided and troubled past that continues to affect the behavior and perceptions of both police and community to this day.

What greater work could the panel do, really, than give voice to a community which, rationally or irrationally, still appears to harbor deep suspicions of its police force? A community which, while perhaps no longer suffering as much as in the past, is still seeing its young people, black and white, dying by degrees — like 16-year-old Garrett Salvhus, who was gunned down while riding his bicycle in Newtown last November.

The public temporarily lost its opportunity to talk to the panel, though, last week, when the panel canceled its Jan. 25 meeting. According to city Public Information Officer Jan Thornburg, a “very popular” police officer had died suddenly (not while on duty) the week before the scheduled meeting, and though services for the officer were not being held until the day after the meeting, PAP Chairwoman Susan Chapman had decided it would “be in the best interests of the police, the panel and the community” to cancel the meeting. The panel’s website said it was canceled “out of respect” for the SPD.

Meanwhile, when 28-year-old Michael Scarbrough was killed by unknown assailants just a week before, and his bullet-riddled body was found lying on a dark street on a cold January night in Newtown, his murder didn’t exactly get a lot of respect. It was briefly noted on the Sarasota Herald-Tribune website, and attracted three pages of public reaction — much of it along the lines of this reader’s comment: “Now, if we can get the rest of them to kill each other we won’t have to support them in our prisons.”

Maybe, instead of canceling the Jan. 25 meeting to show respect for one man and one community, it would have been more sensitive and respectful if Chapman had gone ahead with the meeting and set aside time during it to pay respect to both lives lost, from both communities.
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The next PAP meeting is at 5:30 p.m. Mon., Feb. 2, at City Hall, 1565 First St., Sarasota. All meetings are aired live on Access Sarasota on Comcast Cable channel 19 and Verizon channel 34 and streamed live on the Internet at sarasotagov.com.
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This article will appear next week in Creative Loafing newspaper on newstands February 3.

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Posted on January 28th, 2010Comments RSS Feed
One Response to Sarasota’s Police Advisory Panel — Some Thoughts
  1. John W. Perkins
    January 28, 2010 at 2:57 pm

    That’s my girl, stir the pot..

    Reply

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