In 2013, just two weeks before Bernadette DiPino was sworn in as Sarasota’s 11th chief of police, she sent a letter to the officers she would soon be commanding.
“It was quite inspirational. There were a lot of promises for a good future with her. Obviously, she’s turned into a different person since then. Quite a number of officers are unhappy about the turn of events,” said William Bjork, president of the Sarasota Police Officers Association, IUPA local 6045.
Bjork, who’s been an officer for nearly 40 years, is on his fourth year as SPD’s union president, representing around 140 officers, sergeants and non-sworn criminalists.
“We represent the rank and file,” Bjork said. “There are a lot of unhappy people with this particular chief of police. It seems like morale is getting worse every day.”
The main issue, Bjork said, is a “lack of trust.”
“In light of recent events, people are calling on me, looking for a vote of no confidence,” Bjork said. “We are going to take it up with the board, have a meeting with our membership and talk with our attorneys, but it is being discussed.”
Calls for the vote began after the Herald-Tribune published a story that detailed how DiPino joked about using a Taser on a mentally ill homeless man who heckled her officers during a special performance by the Sarasota Opera Nov. 18.
According to an anonymous complaint, after the performance, as the crowd was walking back into the building, DiPino turned to a group of officers and said: “Anybody have a Taser they can give me so I can get rid of him?”
The whistleblower stated that he or she needed anonymity because, “I would be retaliated against by my supervisor and/or my division commander if they were to find out I had discussed this situation.”
“I can say unequivocally that I don’t know who filed that complaint against her,” Bjork said. “But I can tell you that we always fear retaliation. Whoever that officer is, I hope it never becomes known.
“If a member of the rank and file had said exactly the same thing the chief allegedly said, we believe it would have been handled differently,” Bjork said. “The officer would be on administrative leave and then subjected to a lengthy investigation by internal affairs.”
Bjork did not say how soon a potential vote of no confidence could be expected.
DiPino declined to be interviewed for this story.
Sarasota City Manager Marlon Brown said Friday he was disappointed when he first learned of DiPino’s comments.
“I have said that for any issue such as that, it is my obligation to immediately look into it,” Brown told the Herald-Tribune.
According to a story published Thursday, Brown counseled DiPino about her comments and instructed her to apologize to her staff.
To the best of his knowledge, as of Friday, Bjork said DiPino had not apologized to the rank and file officers.
“I know she apologized to her command staff,” Brown said. “I don’t know who else was part of the event, or if and when she’ll get to them. I have not followed up with her.”
A vote of no confidence, Brown said, is something not taken lightly.
“Obviously, if the union is going to take a vote of no confidence, it really affects the entire organization. It affects morale. It affects the ability of the rank and file officers, if they are part of it, to respect the chief,” Brown said. “I will have to talk to the chief about the outcome of that.”
The department administration recently proposed a new system to track discipline, but the system has not yet been implemented.
Now, everything is entered into a computer program called Blue Team. If an officer is “written up,” it’s said they’ve been “blue teamed.”
“Sergeants have lost the authority to supervise their shift,” Bjork said. “Instead, the administration wants them to write everybody up. Simple matters that used to be handled by first-line supervisors have been taken out of their hands. It seems like whenever they can, they’re typing up charges.”
If a sergeant fails to write up an officer and the administration learns of it, both are blue-teamed, Bjork said.
As a result, departments 10 times larger than SPD average about half of the disciplinary cases.
“The members are sick of the double standard. They’re being treated differently than their commanders. They’re sick of walking on egg shells around the department, hoping they don’t get into trouble. Many think DiPino is dishonest and pretty much has a ‘do as I say, not as I do’ attitude.”
Bjork said regardless of the actions of the chief, the officers are not going to allow their job to be affected.
“The men and women of SPD, through it all, have continued to serve with honor and integrity,” he said. “We’ve been living through this, and we continue to do our best for everyone. We continue to do our jobs. We just want things to get better.”