SARASOTA, Fla. - The city's police chief is stepping up patrols in one of the higher violent crime areas but it means officers ride alone. And while the union says the chief’s new patrolling tactic is dangerous, some in the community support her strategy.
“It’s scary,” says Valencia Morgan Smith about life in Newtown on the north side of the city.
“Sometimes at night, you hear shots fired not sure how close they are to you. It makes you scared, especially if you have grandkids, grandchildren in your house. It’s very scary.”
Newtown is one of two out of 10 zones where police used to double up in patrol cars but not anymore. As of two weeks ago, officers work solo - one per patrol car.
Chief Bernadette DiPino points to a map of the city and its zones. As she isolates Zones 3 she says, “There are still police officers here, one here and one here. They can respond quicker to areas and also back each other up.”
The staffing change, says DiPino, is her next step in community policing and it’s part of the latest collective bargaining agreement with the union.
“I now have more flexibility to deploy officers where needed and increase visibility,” says DiPino.
But it’s also increasing an officer’s vulnerability, according to the police union president Mick McHale. He says he’s getting an earful from officers.
“I am getting inundated on a daily basis with their concerns of safety - the public’s and themselves,” he says.
Is the public safer? McHale says, “In our opinion, no!”
Single-officer patrol cars aren't the answer, he says. "We need more officers at the Sarasota Police Department,” he adds.
“Just doubling up police officers in itself is not going to stop anyone from attacking or killing a police officer,” says DiPino.
Violent crime across the city is down 17 percent since 2014, according to the police department. With lower crime and increased community policing and training of officers, DiPino says, officers are safer.
“I see a cooperation between police and citizens and that ultimately makes police officers safer,” says DiPino.
But McHale questions if the city is adequately covered. He says under the new agreement SPD doesn’t have to guarantee a minimum number of officers patrolling each zone, and that they are gathering data to present to the city commission.
Meanwhile, Smith has seen more patrol cars on the road and says the higher visibility of officers is making a difference.
“Less crime, less shooting, less drug activity. I think it’s very beneficial,” she notes.
The police chief is doing an independent staffing analysis. The union president says he wishes she had finished the study first before “rushing” into any decision.
DiPino says, “I think this is a safe way of patrolling. If we find it’s not working we’ll change it back. It’s a management right."