November 7, 2023
(SARASOTA, Fla.) – The Sarasota Police Department celebrated the grand opening of their new Community Relations Unit (CRU) substation in the center of Newtown, a historical Black community in North Sarasota.
“Law enforcement and the community have been fractured. This new unit will help bring conversations to the table,” the President of Sarasota County’s Branch of the NAACP, Trevor D. Harvey, told the Click at the office’s grand opening on Oct. 14.
Harvey, a Newtown native, says he held an important role in creating this new division by working with Sarasota Police Department to help develop a training program for incoming officers. This program would help new officers understand the community, how it operates as well as connect residents to the new recruits.
Harvey says that most of the new officers coming into the department are not familiar with the area and should learn how to interact with members of the community, to which they’ll spend several hours of the day patrolling — one of the main goals for this program.
“Police officers get a bad reputation sometimes and we want to change that here,” Harvey said.
Newtown is considered a high crime neighborhood that has led to more police officers patrolling in the area, WWSB reported . Compared to the rest of Sarasota, Newtown has a higher percentage of population below the poverty level. According to Sarasota city data, 36.7% of Newtown’s residents are in poverty with 42.7% of the population being family households.
A 2021 study conducted by the National Institute of Health found that societies in lower socioeconomic areas produce variation between “offending behavior” because there is a lack of “legitimate employment” opportunities for the people within the community.
In 2022, there were four homicides in the first two months of the year that included the fatal shooting of a 17-year-old in Newtown. There was also an escalation in 911 calls to report gunshots in the area in 2019.
The new unit will increase visibility of officers in the community with the intention to establish an every day presence for people to get comfortable with.
Increasing positive engagements between police and the community by having officers present on foot or bike rather than in patrol vehicles is a strategy proposed by Sarasota’s Newtown Redevelopment Plan. The CRU is the latest implementation of the city’s 2021 updated plan which has improvement guides for the next 20 years.
The main objective of the CRU was to create consistency within the community and connections in a “humanistic and relatable” sense, said Patrick Comac, a nearly 13 year SPD veteran and the new unit’s sergeant.
SPD celebrated the opening with music, food, games, and a ribbon-cutting on Saturday. Younger kids were seen playing basketball and enjoying ice cream with the officers.
The new office is located at 1782 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way.
Comac said that he hopes for this unit to be a space for the kids in the community to feel safe and comfortable. To date, the unit has participated in meeting students at their bus stops, and sitting in with them at school for lunch. CRU officers taught a dozen kids how to ride bicycles, Comac said.
“There was a need for this division because the community needs a familiar face to create these relationships. In the CAT, one day I was arresting somebody on the street and the next I was handing out stickers,” Comac said.
Previously, the Community Action Team (CAT) was responsible for both community outreach and crime response. Now, the unit hopes their efforts can focus on crime prevention.