“I’m the Bum Hunter,” boasts SPD officer in latest chapter in city’s war on homeless.

November 27, 2012

ACLU of Florida Media Office,786-363-2737, media@aclufl.org

SARASOTA - The ACLU of Florida today released transcripts of police communications that further reveal a culture of contempt and disrespect for the city’s homeless within the Sarasota Police Department. The transcripts, discovered as the result of an open records request by ACLU of Florida Sarasota Chapter Legal Chair Michael Barfield, include officers referring to the practice of “bum hunting,” joking about dressing up as a “bum” with a wig and “bottle of rum,” and talking about how officers are considered “soft” until they have proven themselves by getting into a fight with a “bum.”

The transcripts revealed today are “DIGI Messages,” electronic text messages sent between onboard computers in police squad cars and supervisors. One such exchange between officers reads as follows:



In another communication, a supervisor instructs officers to drive to the city’s Island Park to round up any homeless individuals to cite them for any and all violations of city code possible.

The ACLU of Florida is currently suing the city of Sarasota on behalf of individuals who have been targeted in the city of Sarasota’s trespass enforcement program. The lawsuit states that the overly broad application of the city’s trespass laws is being used by police to single out and harass the homeless and other groups without warning or due process.

“What these transcripts reveal is that the mistreatment of homeless in Sarasota by the police is not a series of isolated incidents – it’s a systemic problem,” stated Michael Barfield, Legal Chair for the Sarasota Chapter of the ACLU of Florida who discovered the messages. “These juvenile, abusive messages reveal that the police patrolling the streets of our city have no respect for the rights and dignity of those among us who are most needy and struggling to get by.”

The discovery of the messages is the most recent chapter in the ongoing saga of police mistreatment of homeless in Sarasota, which has occurred during a dramatic spike in the number of arrests and citations by police in Sarasota.

During the 120-day period from July 23rd to November 20th of 2012, there were 592 arrests and citations for violations of municipal ordinances. That is up from an average of 254.6 arrests during the previous 120-day periods going back to August of 2008.

“In spite of everything that has transpired in recent months, the city has yet to take serious action to bring an end to the culture of disrespect and abuse of the homeless,” stated Barfield. “Instead, the leadership in city hall has fostered this culture with harsh policies and harassing tactics.”

Although the city has long had a reputation for poor police treatment and criminalization of homelessness, earning the distinction of “Meanest City” from the National Coalition for the Homeless in 2006, the recent spike in police activity, as well as the newly-discovered messages and several high-profile incidents involving police encounters with homeless persons, have made the issue more pressing than ever.

“It’s bitterly ironic that the very police officers, who are paid with public funds to protect and serve, chose to harm and take,” stated Neil Donovan, executive director, National Coalition for the Homeless. “Shamelessly, they bandy the word ‘bum’ without seeing their own pursuits as shiftless and dehumanizing. It’s equally disturbing to imagine armed officers of the law fashioning themselves as ‘Bum Hunters’ in pursuit of those who only deserve our compassion.”

In the midst of the recent spike of arrests and citations, on November 13th the Sarasota Chapter of the ACLU of Florida sent a letter to Sarasota City Manager Thomas Barwin calling on Barwin to “stop the war on the homeless now.” The letter had been sent in response to the November 11th arrest of Darren Kersey, a homeless man who was jailed by Sarasota Police for charging a cell phone at a public picnic shelter in Gillespie Park. Kersey was told by the arresting sergeant that "theft of city utilities will not be tolerated during this bad economy."

“Law enforcement and the criminal justice system has failed as a solution to end homelessness in Sarasota,” stated former City of Sarasota Mayor Richard Martin. “In fact this approach has made things worse. City leaders must first take decisive action to stop abusive police actions against homeless people, and then begin working on effective solutions other than using our police, courtrooms and jails to combat poverty and homelessness in our community.”

Copies of the DIGI Message transcripts are available here:


A copy of the November 11th letter sent by the ACLU of Florida Sarasota Chapter to City Manager Thomas Barwin is available here: http://aclufl.org/pdfs/2012-11-13-ACLUSarasotaHomelessLetter.pdf

A copy of the Complaint for Declaratory and Injunctive Relief filed by the ACLU of Florida against the City of Sarasota in April of 2012 is available here:

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