An orchestrated exit?

Rush to replace former Sarasota Police Chief Bernadette DiPino raises questions

Former Sarasota Police Chief Bernadette DiPino at a news conference announcing her resignation on January 27. Two days later, former Captain Jim Rieser was named as her the new chief.

I don’t think I’m the only one who found the speed with which Sarasota City Manager Marlon Brown last week named a replacement for outgoing Sarasota Police Chief Bernadette DiPino to be alarming and not a little troubling.

DiPino — under increasing pressure to resign after an ill-advised remark she made about a heckler who’d badgered officers during an informal outdoor concert by the Sarasota Opera set off two weeks of media criticism — signed her severance agreement the afternoon of January 27.

At a press conference on the morning of January 29, City Manager Marlon Brown named James Rieser, a 29-year SPD veteran, not interim chief, as had been anticipated, but as DiPino’s permanent replacement.

So much for the “nation-wide” search that had been suggested just the day before.

Regardless of where you stand on whether DiPino’s departure was or wasn’t warranted — I was in the camp that felt that while her casual remark was thoughtless and inexcusable, it was offset by the accomplishments of her 8-year tenure — you had to consider whether this entire sequence of events was more setup than spontaneous.

Even some who’d led the charge for DiPino’s departure, like Michael Barfield, president of the ACLU of Florida, seemed taken aback by the precipitous appointment, telling the Sarasota Herald Tribune he believed foregoing a nationwide search was “a mistake.”

Trevor Harvey, president of the Sarasota NAACP called the rush to appoint Rieser “a slap in the face,” adding that the “lack of transparency” by the city comes at a particularly critical time for police/community relations, following the death last year of George Floyd and other incidents of police brutality against individuals of color.

“We needed to have an open process,” Harvey said. “With the current climate we are in across this country with law enforcement, I thought we had a great opportunity to let the community be at the table. I realize we have no operational say so, but it would have been the right thing to do.”

What I’ve not yet heard anyone mention is that Rieser’s tenure is likely to be short-lived. He is someone who took advantage of the department’s “drop” program, which allows officers to technically announce their retirement up to five years in advance, but continue working and drawing a salary as their pension payments accumulate, to be paid when they officially exit.

Rieser is currently 18 months away from the end of his drop period. That means that — barring some unusual outside contractual arrangement with the city — he must retire in a year and a half. And just a month ago, when DiPino asked each of her four top captains about filling the position of former Deputy Chief Pat Robinson — who was plucked by Brown to become interim Deputy City Manager after Brown took over for the retiring Tom Barwin in December — Rieser expressed no interest.

Brown’s selection of Robinson for the city role reportedly took DiPino, who had been grooming Robinson to become her successor, by surprise. Whatever occurred behind the scenes after that move quickly led to a breakdown in relations between all three parties.

Then in early January, an anonymous “whistleblower” brings forth the impolitic remark DiPino made back in November, followed by the head of the police union threatening a vote of “no confidence” in DiPino. At that point, the former chief must have seen the writing on the wall.

It all makes you wonder if this entire sequence wasn’t orchestrated behind the scenes, with Rieser’s appointment a convenient stop gap to keep the powers that be in control until Robinson can be returned to his former stomping grounds, this time as chief.

Brown has said Rieser’s selection will insure continuity of the department’s ongoing initiatives, but one of Rieser’s first duties as chief will be filling vacancies for a deputy chief, two new captains, two new lieutenants and two new sergeants. Depending on who is really calling the shots that could mean a departmental shift away from the relationship-building, community policing model DiPino advocated.

Two years ago, after a community meeting to address environmental concerns in Newtown turned sour when residents confronted DiPino about how her officers were patrolling their neighborhood, she told me that mending law enforcement relations with Sarasota’s Black community was the only thing keeping her at her post.

“I don’t need this job,” she told me. “I could walk out of here and retire right now. But we’ve made so much progress on so many things. If I can leave this agency having made some inroads in this area ... That’s my goal. That’s my challenge.”

It was a goal she left unrealized. And it’s a challenge that will remain for Rieser, or whomever his successor may be.

“We don’t agree with this appointment, but it is what it is and we can’t do anything about it,” Harvey said. “Now we have to figure out how we’re going to build bridges so we don’t fall backwards again. And we will hold Marlon and Pat — and now, Rieser — accountable for the progress that we have made with this community so far. We’re going to have to hold their feet to the fire.”