Sarasota chief's offhand 'Taser' comment angers advocate for homeless

Two months ago, Sarasota Opera brought an outdoor socially distant performance to police in Sarasota. While it appeared to bring cheer in the midst of the pandemic, an anonymous complaint from a Sarasota police employee said a comment by Chief Bernadette DiPino brought the mood down. 

At the end of the performance, a homeless man with a history of mental illness yelled profanities about SPD. According to the complaint, the chief made an offhand comment, asking if anyone had a Taser. 

"It sends the wrong message to the rank-and-file officers coming from the head of the agency that it’s OK to engage in this type of conduct," said Michael Barfield, the president of ACLU Florida

Barfield said the comment hurts the city's strides in turning around its image when dealing with the homeless. 

"The city manager and the city commission need to have a serious discussion about the future of the chief and this agency," said Barfield. 

DiPino joined SPD in 2013.  As the city faced lawsuits from the ACLU over how the homeless were treated, the chief worked to make things better. 

In a 2015 interview, she described her agency's efforts to improve its relationship with the community. 

"We brought in civilians, counselors, we engage with the community. The people who are homeless every day. We make impacts on trying to find out how they are homeless and how we can get them treatment," she said. 

Whether it was a joke or not, Barfield said the offhand comment does more harm.

"It sets back the city for all the work that we’ve done to correct issues as it relates to homelessness and dealing with them," he said. 

In a statement, Sarasota police said Chief DiPino was made aware of the complaint last Monday. City Manager Marlon Brown counseled her in reference to the complaint.