Sarasota Police deny targeting the homeless with arrests

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SARASOTA, Fla. -- In May, the Sarasota Police Department announced they will be implementing a community intelligence policing initiative. Police said at the time that the community could expect to see high visibility of officers targeting areas historically known for crime.

Since that announcement, the department has conducted several operations, one of which resulted in the arrest of 10 people. But the sting didn’t target the usual suspects. Nine out of ten times, police are looking for drug dealers. But this sting they were going after those trying to buy.

“We went up there with cocaine powder, cocaine, crack cocaine, and marijuana, because that’s what the demand is," says Sarasota Police Lt. Pat Ledwith about their latest efforts to wage a war on drugs.

The undercover sting resulted in 10 arrests. One person was arrested for selling drugs, but the other 9 attempted a purchase from an undercover officer posing as a drug dealer.

"This time we went up there to focus on people buying drugs, and it’s basically to balance out our attack and to make it undesirable to go to that area buy drugs."

That area is Fredd Atkins Park off U.S. 301 and MLK in the Newtown community.

The undercover officer sold three suspects cocaine, but the other 6 people bought $5 bags of marijuana -- a third-degree felony punishable by up to 5 years in prison. A punishment some say is too harsh for the crime, especially since seven of those arrested were homeless.

But law enforcement says they are not targeting the homeless, nor are they only cracking down on marijuana. "The individual sets what they want. We don’t say ‘hey we have a bag of weed here.’ They tells us what they want,” says Lt. Ledwith. “I know there's been some attention brought to say ‘oh, it was marijuana. Who cares, its legal in two states.’ Well until the State of Florida says it legal, we're going to continue to enforce it."

In addition, officials say their effort comes at a request from the community. "I've been asked a number of times. There are folks in the Newtown area that have said ‘why don’t you focus on the people who come into our neighborhood who don’t live here.’"

And even though officials say many in the Newtown area support the efforts, those we spoke to say otherwise. "In a way, it’s not a good thing to have that type of sting in the community," says Victor Johnson.

He says targeting the users won’t address the problem of where the drugs are coming from. "Newtown is not the only community who has drugs, but we've always been the target community, saying we are the drug capital. But we are not, because we don’t have the money, the capital to buy the large drugs."

But whether you're buying or selling, the Sarasota Police Department says they will be out there, too. “We're going to continue a balanced attack at drugs in our community."