Sarasota, Florida - The ACLU claims the City of Sarasota is at war with the homeless. ACLU legal consultant Michael Barfield claims there is a culture of contempt and abuse of Sarasota's homeless by the police department.
According to Sarasota ACLU attorneys, arrests of homeless individuals sleeping outside are up to 111 between January and September compared to just four last year.
Barfield says, "We ask appointed and elected city leaders to end the city's war on the homeless."
From the front lawn of Sarasota City Hall, ACLU representatives say there is a pattern- a culture of harassment of the homeless within the Sarasota Police Department.
"Internal police text messages reveal a practice of targeting the homeless. Some refer to it as 'bum hunting," says Barfield.
The ACLU released electronic messages from August where a police officer allegedly text another officer, "I'm the Bum Hunter tonight."
In September one officer appears to ask another "Can you check Island Park for transients? Cite them city code if found."
Transcripts also show an officer joking about dressing up like a "bum" with wig and a bottle of rum.
Captain Paul Sutton with the Sarasota Police Department says he had not heard about these texts until today's press conference.
"It is unacceptable behavior. I can tell you the Sarasota Police Department does not hunt homeless people, in fact we do the opposite. We provide services to homeless people."
Police officials say since 2004 they've helped more than 2,500 homeless- either as crime victims or with provided services for drug abuse, mental health or housing.
City Manager Tom Barwin says these are isolated comments that are being exploited by the ACLU. Barwin adds the ACLU never notified city officials of the press conference until 10 minutes before it started.
"To set the record straight, for those who don't know this community raised millions of dollars, 10 million to address homeless needs," says Barwin.
He listed the Salvation Army where the homeless can get a meal, a place to sleep, a shower and receive substance abuse treatment as an example. He also lists the Resurrection Home that provides laundry and meals.
A few homeless attended the press conference with their own suggestions.
"Why call me a bum unless you try to give me a job," says James Franklin, Jr.
Cindy Edlund would like to see more services targeting substance abuse. She says, "Let's work on prevention; there's been a stalemate."
Sarasota's city manager challenges the ACLU to raise half a million dollars to help with the homeless substance abuse problem and come to the table with solutions instead of more litigation.
The ACLU is in the middle of a class action suit against the City for their alleged use of its trespassing ordinance to single out the homeless.