SARASOTA, Fla. (WFLA) – The Sarasota Police Department is involved in yet another controversy involving a member of the homeless population.
The city already is ranked nationally as "the meanest city in America" toward the homeless, according to a national advocacy organization. Now, Chief Bernadette DiPino is battling a public relations nightmare once again. This time, it involves Andrew Halpin, a member of her agency since 2006.
Surveillance video from the jail on July 18 shows the officer interacting with a homeless man during the booking process. Officer Halpin appears to be taunting the inmate, Randy Miller, at the Sarasota County Jail where the city houses prisoners.
The officer is seen throwing peanuts at Miller's mouth, as the man sits on a bench while handcuffed behind his back. Officer Halpin also is seen teasing the man, laughing at him and commanding him to open his mouth and catch the snack. When Miller does not catch the peanut, he cranes his neck to see where it landed. This happens over and over again. The officer also appears to congratulate himself when the man catches the snack in his mouth.
At one point, Miller crawls on the ground to eat the peanuts he missed off the floor. Sources also say the 44-year-old homeless man was given dog commands by the officer, as other deputies watched.
DiPino was not aware of the incident, nor was the jail, until the video was released to the media Monday. Upon seeing the video, the chief told WFLA, "I'm disappointed in what I saw in this video. Due to the actions I've seen on camera, I immediately initiated an internal affairs investigation."
The chief declined our request for an on-camera interview since the internal affairs investigation is active.
Meanwhile, the ACLU is calling for the officer's firing. Michael Barfield, the vice-president of the ACLU of Florida, describes the treatment of the inmate in the video as "humiliating."
Said Barfield: "I was disgusted, disappointed, then started thinking about why do we always have these incidents in Sarasota?"
Barfield claims the officer has had disciplinary problems before with the department, an agency that has been plagued with issues.
"The officer should be fired," Barfield said. "We have to send a message that this kind of behavior is not going to be tolerated with someone who is expected to render very good judgement because they have a weapon."
The ACLU plans to have separate meetings with both the chief and Randy Miller. Miller, according to the ACLU, has a history of mental illness and is no stranger to law enforcement in Sarasota. Records show he has a long rap sheet, including charges of trespassing. The subject of Miller's arrest in this case was trespassing at a local convenience store at 1702 North Washington in Sarasota while drunk, records show.
In fact, WFLA stopped by the food mart to speak with the clerk, who told us, "He was drunk and harassing my customers, asking them for money. I had to call the police."
Barfield claims Miller's alleged crimes do not excuse the officer's actions.
"No one should ever be treated like this," Barfield said. "This has to stop."