Web site posts comments on police officers' conduct

ST. PETERSBURG — A controversial new Web site allowing citizens to comment on police treatment can now add St. Petersburg's finest to a growing list of officers up for review.

"It's America — we have the right to be informed," site co-founder Gino Sesto explains. "You're a public servant for crying out loud, you're open to scrutiny."

The site, ratemycop.com, has listed the names of about 140,000 police officers from about 500 police departments nationwide, letting hundreds of people air their beef with individual officers in the virtual public square.

Locally, the site also has gained some traction in Tampa.

"Officers who do their job well will receive the public attention they deserve," the site says. "So will the dishonorable few who try to hide misconduct behind the power of their badge."

Since launching in late February, ratemycop.com hasn't made much of a blip here. Just six comments have surfaced about the city's police force, and police say the roster of 435 listed officers is wrong. There's actually 515.

"What value does a site like that have?" police spokesman Bill Proffitt asked. "For us, it doesn't have any."

But today's technology offers sites like ratemycop.com an unprecedented forum for public interaction, whether that means exchanging restaurant reviews, sharing photos or commenting on online newspaper stories.

Lobbying praise or criticism on police officers "is the same concept," said Cory Armstrong, a journalism professor at the University of Florida. "At the same time, police officers aren't a product," she said, adding, "These are people's careers we're talking about."

On the site, officers are graded on three criteria: authority, fairness and satisfaction. Users can leave comments, but those deemed threatening or personal can be flagged and later deleted.

"People do have strong opinions," Sesto, 37, said. "We've had to pull some aside. Some have left because of it."

A soft-spoken Californian with a background in advertising, Sesto said he's not on an anti-cop or pro-cop mission. He just wanted to provide a "democratic process where people can leave their opinions."

But it's not the democratic spirit of the site that irks the department. Police say they want to foster an open dialogue between citizens and the force, but they prefer real people with real complaints to anonymous, online gripes.

"We're not going out there and making people's days most times," said Maj. J.R. Thompson, who heads the department's internal affairs office. "If they absolutely believe they were mistreated, I encourage them to go through the proper channels."

Thompson said there's plenty of ways to voice your complaints, like e-mails, phone calls and letters to the department, as well as the thrice-weekly citizens review committee. That doesn't mean he won't acknowledge the site, but Thompson said he prefers "people contact me and put their name on the record and I'll take a look at it."

But once a formal complaint is filed, state law says those records must be sealed until in-house investigations are finished.

That's what motivated Sesto and his fiancee to launch the site in the first place.

"If the police departments published their records, if they make it completely transparent," he said. "I'll shut the Web site down."

Casey Cora can be reached at (813) 226-3386 or ccora@sptimes.com.

Web site posts comments on police officers' conduct 06/03/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 3, 2008 4:05pm]

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