Pasco Sheriff’s Office letter targets residents for ‘increased accountability’

Critics of the agency’s intelligence programs called the letter ‘patronizing’ and ‘offensive,’ and raised continued concerns about civil rights

Source: Pasco Sheriff’s Office letter targets residents for ‘increased accountability’

It starts like an offer of admission from a prestigious university.

“We are pleased to inform you that you have been selected…” it says.

But the four-page letter from the Pasco Sheriff’s Office goes on to tell recipients they will be facing enhanced police scrutiny under the agency’s controversial intelligence program.

“You may wonder why you were enrolled in this program,” the letter continues. “You were selected as a result of an evaluation of your recent criminal behavior using an unbiased, evidence-based risk assessment designed to identify prolific offenders in our community. As a result of this designation, we will go to great efforts to encourage change in your life through enhanced support and increased accountability.”

Last year, a Tampa Bay Times investigation revealed that the Sheriff’s Office creates lists of people it considers likely to break the law based on criminal histories, social networks and other unspecified intelligence. The agency sends deputies to their homes repeatedly, often without a search warrant or probable cause for an arrest.

Targets and their relatives, including four who are now suing the Sheriff’s Office in federal court, described the tactics as harassment and a violation of their constitutional rights. National policing experts drew comparisons to child abuse and surveillance that could be expected under an authoritarian regime.Related: Read the investigation into the sheriff’s intelligence program

The Times also found that the agency has a separate program that uses schoolchildren’s grades, attendance records and abuse histories to label them potential future criminals.

Earlier this year, Sheriff Chris Nocco and the Pasco County school district announced they would scale back some features of the school-data program. But the letter signals a broadening of the core program.

The Sheriff’s Office said the letter is part of a new intelligence effort aimed specifically at people whose criminal histories include drug offenses and violent crimes.

It was supposed to launch in mid-2020, but was delayed until December because of the pandemic, Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Amanda Hunter said.

It includes several new features, including that people can be dropped from the program after two years without “criminal activity” and a phone number they can call with questions.

In an online video, Sheriff’s Office Captain Toni Roach says being selected is “good news” because participants will “have the opportunity to receive assistance from the Pasco Sheriff’s Office and several community partners.”

But critics of the agency’s intelligence efforts, including an alliance of local, state and national organizations known as People Against the Surveillance of Children and Overpolicing, or the PASCO Coalition, said the latest communication raises even more concerns.

“The letter is basically threatening and promising a certain level of harassment and oversight that is in line with the stories we are hearing from the community,” said Raniah Elgendi, of the Council of American-Islamic Relations-Florida.

“We know that is not what makes people or communities more safe, this heightened level of surveillance,” said Lauren Johnson, an assistant counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

The Times found being named a Sheriff’s Office target could have serious consequences. Deputies showed up at homes at all hours of the day and night, writing tickets for violations like overgrown grass and making arrests for any reason they could find.

By 2020, some 1,000 people had been ensnared. About 100 were 18 years old or younger.

The new letter to so-called “prolific offenders” says its purpose is to communicate the agency’s “sincere desire” to help recipients “begin a new path.”

“We are committed to your success,” it says.

The letter notes that the Sheriff’s Office has partnered with Pasco County Human Services and provides contact information for 18 government agencies, health clinics and non-profit organizations.

But it also delivers a stern warning: “Our desire to help you will not hinder us from holding you fully accountable for your choices and actions.”

It then says the Sheriff’s Office will share recipients’ names and criminal histories with local, state and federal law enforcement agencies to ensure “the highest level of accountability” for any future crimes they commit.

Members of the PASCO Coalition questioned whether the Sheriff’s Office pressuring people to get services would actually help.

They also took issue with the language used in the letter.

“It is so incredibly patronizing and offensive on so many levels,” said Bacardi Jackson, Florida Managing Attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The coalition is continuing to demand changes to Pasco’s intelligence programs, its members said.

Times Staff Writer Kathryn Varn contributed to this report.

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