Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Citizen Police Panels in Limbo

Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Citizen Police Panels in Limbo

Article excerpt

SARASOTA: What power do they wield? It may be up to new and incoming officials


The citizen committees Sarasota created to monitor police are going through an identity crisis.

A year and a half after the city formed the Independent Police Advisory Panel and Police Complaint Committee, members and city officials are not sure how much power they should have and are sticking to a wait-and-see approach as the department's leadership changes.

When Bernadette DiPino takes over for retiring Chief Mikel Hollaway on Jan. 1, the mayor says she wants DiPino's "studied look" at the committees, which commissioners acknowledge have no power over disciplinary decisions.

The Independent Police Advisory Panel was intended to ensure "accountability and transparency," according to the city's announcement of the panel's inaugural meeting in May 2011. It takes community suggestions and makes recommendations to the city manager and police chief, although few community members have attended its meetings.

The Police Complaint Committee reviews how the department handles complaints against officers.

The committees were created to assuage public distrust of the police after a 2009 incident where Officer Christopher Childers was taped kicking a handcuffed man in the head. The way the case was handled led to the resignation of Chief Peter Abbott and cost the city more than $235,000 in damages to the man, Juan Perez, and backpay to Childers, who was fired, then reinstated three years later.

The panels have put a spotlight on the department's problems, Commissioner Shannon Snyder said. However, he added, their recommendations are initiatives any progressive chief should be doing.

When commissioners reviewed the committees this week, Snyder, who worked at the Sarasota County Sheriff's Office for 25 years, said he did not want to give the groups more power but they need to remain as a safeguard while the department retrains officers and crafts new policies over the next couple of years.

"I guess basically when we stop writing big checks, I guess maybe we shouldn't have to have these review committees," he said.

Two former Police Complaint Committee members, including the chairman, said the way the committee is set up has rendered it powerless.

The complaint committee is made up of five members, who are community representatives, and a police lieutenant who attends their monthly meetings as an ex-officio member. They essentially audit closed disciplinary cases, passing along suggestions to the police chief.

Police completed 195 disciplinary investigations in 2010, 137 last year and 87 so far this year, said Peter Graham, the city's police advisory panel administrator.

Two resignations

For years, the police department has dismissed the actions of, or inappropriately disciplined, problem officers who are insulated by the police union, former Chairman Ronald Riffel said. …

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