Video shows homeless man battered in Sarasota arrest
In this screen grab from Sarasota County Area Transit video cameras, Sarasota police officers are seen arresting Roger Fields.
SARASOTA - A veteran Sarasota police officer was suspended Thursday after a video surfaced that showed him slamming a homeless man face-first into a wall during an arrest last month.
The video shows officer Derrick Gilbert pushing Roger Alan Fields into the corner of a metal bus ticket booth — a blow that stunned Fields, split his head open and required a trip to the hospital and stitches to close the injury.
The incident occurred the morning of Oct. 6 at the downtown bus depot on Lemon Avenue, and was captured by a security camera.
After watching the video in his office Thursday, City Manager Tom Barwin said it “was clearly excessive force and will be referred to Internal Affairs immediately.”
“This will not be tolerated,” Barwin said. “I'm getting tired of it.”
Barwin called Sarasota Police Chief Mikel Hollaway and told him to immediately suspend the officer. Gilbert was placed on administrative leave several hours later.
“It's important for the department and the community to know that despite whatever emotions were in play at that moment, there were two officers there that could have controlled the situation,” Barwin said.
Fields' attorney, Assistant Public Defender Dave Holland, said he also believes Gilbert used excessive force during the arrest.
“I don't see how he could have resisted in such a short amount of time,” Holland said.
Asked for comment Thursday, Hollaway initially said in an email that Fields “caused his own problems.”
After speaking to Barwin, Hollaway said, “If we've done anything inappropriate, we will deal with it just like we have in the past.”
Gilbert, 45, did not return calls or emails seeking comment.
The latest incident comes at a time when the police department and the city are under intense scrutiny for their treatment of the homeless.
This month, the arrest of a homeless man for charging his cellphone in a city park thrust the city back into the national spotlight.
Then this week, the American Civil Liberties Union unveiled private messages exchanged between Sarasota officers in which they referred to their interactions with the homeless as “bum hunting.”
On Thursday, reaction to the most recent video was similarly strong from homeless advocates.
Michael Barfield, who chairs the local ACLU chapter's legal panel, took issue with Holloway's implication that Fields' conduct somehow prompted the incident.
“The chief's retirement can't come soon enough,” Barfield said. “This is exactly the kind of comment that encourages the atmosphere of lawlessness that exists within the department. When it comes from the top, what else do we expect? Kudos to the city manager for taking decisive action.”
Hollaway retires Friday. He will be replaced Jan. 1 by Bernadette DiPino, currently chief of police in Ocean City, Md. Sarasota Police Capt. Paul Sutton will serve as interim chief.
By Thursday afternoon, DiPino had been told about the video.
“I absolutely agree with what the city manager is doing,” she said. “This deserves to have an investigation. It needs to be looked at from an Internal Affairs perspective.”
City Commissioner Shannon Snyder, himself a former deputy, said he worries that police actions could lead to a civil rights investigation by the U.S. Justice Department and that the resulting civil suits could strain the city's finances.
“I have said in the past that because of fiscal requirements the city can't afford the police department,” said Snyder, who has called for the department to be replaced by sheriff's deputies.
“Now, because of the lawsuits we can't afford the police.”
Gilbert's report and the report of a private security guard employed by SCAT indicate that police were sent to the bus depot because Fields, who has previous arrests for disorderly conduct, was causing problems on the platform.
He was confronted by the security guard, Robert Sauder, who said Fields spit in his face.
The video then shows:
Sauder forced Fields to the ground with a leg sweep and sat on top of him until police arrived, when Gilbert helped him up.
Fields sat on a bench throughout most of his encounter with police, until Gilbert walked behind him, withdrew his handcuffs and attempted to place them on the homeless man. Grabbing Fields by the arm, Gilbert quickly swung him face-first into the metal ticket booth.
After hitting the booth, Fields had a deep cut on his right temple. His knees appeared to grow weak and police and the security guard lowered him to the pavement, where he remained cuffed and on his back until paramedics arrived. He was then loaded onto a gurney and taken to Sarasota Memorial Hospital, where his wound was sutured.
A test of Fields' blood conducted by a nurse at the hospital showed his blood alcohol level was 0.078 percent, which is below the 0.08 percent level at which Florida considers drivers intoxicated.
Fields, 52, was charged with disorderly intoxication and resisting without violence.
He pleaded not guilty to the two misdemeanors and the case is set for trial in January.
Fields has an arrest history in Sarasota County dating back to 1997. It shows arrests for drugs, theft, disorderly conduct, traffic offenses, resisting arrest and battery of a law enforcement officer. Many of the charges were later dropped.
Gilbert joined the department in 1997.
There are three cases in his Internal Affairs file. One involved a minor write-up for missing mandatory training. A 2007 complaint of excessive force was dropped after a board of police officers found that the force was “within department policy.”
Charges lodged against Gilbert last year by a neighbor, who accused him of using profane language and speeding through the neighborhood, were not sustained.