SARASOTA, Fla. - The ACLU dropped a bomb on the Sarasota Police Department Tuesday that has taken them completely by surprise. Upset over a homeless man's arrest for charging his cell phone at a public park, the ACLU used the open records law to request communications between police officers. And what they found stunned even them.
You won't find any homeless people at Five Points Park in downtown Sarasota. The city drove them away by taking the benches out so they wouldn't have a place to sit. And the ACLU says this is just the tip of the iceberg. They say their investigation reveals a culture in the Sarasota Police Department of disrespect and abuse of the homeless.
"Officers have sent messages back and forth stating ‘I am the bum hunter tonight.’ Another message indicated that an officer was considered soft until he had gotten into a fight with a homeless person," says Sarasota ACLU Chair Michael Barfield.
Sarasota Police Captain Paul Sutton, who was not invited to the news conference but listening nearby was shocked to by the term ‘bum hunting’. "I find that term offensive. The first time it's been reported to the police department is at this press conference. If they wanted to make that allegation, I wish they had reported it to us. We would have certainly investigated the allegation."
"Other messages indicated that a senior supervisor ordered officers to target homeless individuals in a city park and cite them for violations of a city code if found meaning, if they found them there in the park," says Barfield.
Capt. Sutton denies police are targeting the homeless. He says police are in fact, a major force in trying to solve the homeless problem.
He says since 2004..."We've made more than 1,000 referrals for services. We worked more than 1,000 cases where homeless individuals are victims of crime. We've made more than 25,000 non-arrest contacts with homeless individuals."
Also listening around the edge of the crowd were a few homeless people.
James Franklin, Jr. says he looks for a job every day and he tries to cooperate with police. "The police done ran me out of numerous places I've been in. It's just a constant battle. You've got to find someplace to stay, find someplace to do anything…like if you have to shower."
"I'm not a bum. I want to work. Physically, it’s been two steps forward two steps back, but I'm going to be back to work," says Cindy Edlund.
Richard Martin, former head of the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness, says taking care of the homeless should be a community problem, and not a police problem. "We need expanded service in South County. We need public restrooms, showers, we need mail drops."
And he says on the whole, the Sarasota Police do a good job. But if there are a few bad apples, they need to be weeded out.
Released communications between police officers:
9/4/12, 3:30am: “AROUND 4 OR 0430, CAN YOU CHECK ISLAND PARK FOR TRANSIENTS? CITE THEM CITY CODE IF FOUND. SOME BRIDGE AND PARK WALKERS HAVE BEEN HASSELED LATELY. LET ME KNOW VIA EMAIL IF YOU FIND ANYTHING AND TAKE ACTION. TXS.”
8/8/12, 2:48am: “GOT A PRANK FOR THE BUM HUNTERS? THEY ARE LOOKING FOR SLEEPING BUMS AND IM GOING TO DRESS UP LIKE ONE AND HAVE THEM FIND ME LOL DOOOOOO IT I IS LOL GOT A WIG CAMO JACKET AND A BOTTLE OF RUM LOL”
8/7/12, 10:17pm: “U THINK UR SOO COOL DON’T U IM THE BUM HUNTER TONIGHT SON!! UR A NERD AND GONNA GET BEAT UP BY A BUM WHEN U WAKE UP DANG MAN, NO FAITH IN UR BOI HUH? HAVENT SEEN U IN A 36 (fight) YET SO U NEED TO PROVE UR SELF SON LOL RIGHT BACK AT U HOMEY O IVE PROVEN MYSELF KILLA LOL NOPE, U SOFT SON!!”