Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Outlet for Frustration

Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Outlet for Frustration

Article excerpt

Use of park's electricity distracts from larger issues of homelessness

It's easy to have a view about the arrest in Sarasota of a homeless man using an electrical outlet -- at a public park -- to charge his cellphone.

The arrest was overkill.

A judge agreed, releasing the man after he spent late Sunday night and early Monday morning in jail -- courtesy of taxpayers -- and dismissing the charge.

Police Chief Mikel Hollaway concurred, telling a Herald-Tribune reporter Tuesday morning that he wished the officer, a sergeant, had issued a summons instead of making an arrest for theft of public utilities.

It's true that the outlet -- at a park pavilion -- belongs to Sarasota city government and is normally covered to prevent unauthorized use. When permitted events are held at the pavilion, which is at Gillespie Park, a city staff member removes the cover for the benefit of the users. That's a sensible way to manage a public asset.

But the cover on the Gillespie Park outlet was broken, letting anyone use the electricity. The arresting officer cited the condition of the cover in his report, noting that he was drawn to the pavilion at about 9:20 p.m. because people hanging out there were smoking -- a violation of city code.

Complaints and criticism

Homeless people at Gillespie Park told the Herald-Tribune that they had routinely used the outlet to charge cellphones and, in at least one case, a motorized wheelchair.

Several people freely admitted that they frequently sleep in the park, which is surrounded by neighborhoods. Hollaway said the Police Department has received complaints from neighbors. We have no doubt.

Sarasota has been criticized for arresting and jailing homeless people for harmless offenses. When city employees temporarily shut off the power at the pavilion yesterday, the stereotype of a callous city was underscored. The power was later restored.

It would be a mistake for the city and the greater community to let this incident -- and similar actions against the homeless -- further divert attention from a persistent, complex social problem. …

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