As Sarasota’s first female top cop, Chief Bernadette DiPino is on a mission to change the perception of the city’s police department. A 27-year veteran of law enforcement, DiPino, 51, comes from a long line of fellow blue bloods —four generations strong. She grew up in a police family, following in the footsteps of her grandfather and dad, both decorated officers. DiPino started her career at the Baltimore County Police Department and later became the police chief in Ocean City, Maryland. Her daughter is now an officer with Baltimore County.
Since she was appointed to the chief role in December 2012, DiPino has enacted a new policy of community policing aimed at rebuilding trust between police officers and city residents. You can often find her walking down the streets of downtown Sarasota, offering a handshake and wave to passersby and hands out her cell phone number to anyone who asks.
DiPino is a strong believer in proactive solutions to solving problems, utilizing new tools to combat crime, and is fiercely protective of the police officers she calls family. She is also deeply committed to her faith, family and sports. Her office walls are adorned with all of her favorites: memorabilia from the Baltimore Ravens and Orioles, a poignant photo from her last days as police chief in Ocean City, and collection of medals from her father. She is also a decorated officer, receiving numerous departmental awards and citations throughout her career, and was recognized as Police Officer of the Year in 1987, 1993 and 1997.
In her own words, Chief DiPino shares some of the challenges and rewards of making her way to the top, the hurdles she faced as a single mother, and the high expectations she has for her department.
Did you have any female mentors that helped you get where you are today?
You know it’s funny. As I moved up in positions over the course of my career – 25 years – I was the first sergeant, the first lieutenant, the first woman on the SWAT team. I really didn’t have any women ahead of me to look up to and get guidance. I was lucky to have men mentor and give me guidance. Of course, my dad mentored me and helped me immensely. There was actually a male police officer – at the time a sergeant on the force —who I learned a lot from early in my career. I eventually beat him out for a job. I remember he said these exact words, “I taught you too well!”
What was the most challenging time in your career?
For almost a whole year, I worked as an undercover police officer in a big cocaine case in Ocean City. Nobody except the chief and one other person knew what I was doing. As a result of that case, the people in the drug organization actually firebombed my brother’s car. They actually thought it was my undercover car. For a whole year after that attack, I kept waiting for them to come break into my house. I wasn’t so much worried about myself – which you always worry about your own safety – but I was really worried about my daughter’s safety. It was quite stressful. Every night my mom and I stayed up talking until the sun came up. My daughter learned how to sleep on the floor (she was about 5 or 6 years old at the time). She’s a good sleeper! She can basically sleep anywhere.
What is your biggest fear?
I think my biggest fear is that we can’t keep our communities safe. That we can’t do things to make the quality of life better for citizens. I feel hope with the people that I have working in this police department and this community that my fear is really unwarranted. There’s so much opportunity to make things better here. There are so many things as a police chief that you fear. You fear there’s going to be an incident in the community where somebody is hurt or injured or you have fears of so many things out of your control. You shouldn’t fear them, but it is always a concern. Being a police chief and an officer is more mental than physical. It’s a problem solving job — keeping a community free and safe.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Choose a job that you love and hope somebody pays you for it. Every single day you have the opportunity to make a positive difference in somebody’s life. Having purpose is the greatest pay and reward that you can have. You’re never going to get rich being a police officer. When you live this life, it’s not about the money. Money is not the root of happiness. Law enforcement is the type of career where every day you will feel the satisfaction in what you did. You did something in your career, in the community or life and the rewards are so great. You may never see the impact you have on someone’s life, but you are making a difference every day. There’s no greater job you can have than making someone happy when they go home.