Florida Sheriff’s Office Targets Lucky Residents For Future, Imagined Crimes
Yes, this is our second straight day discussing Tom Cruise movies, but it seems like the Pasco County, Florida, Sheriff's Office is going full Minority Report on certain residents. In the 2002 Steven Spielberg film, Cruise played an investigator in a "pre-crime" unit that used enslaved psychics to predict homicides in advance and arrest suspects before they'd actually committed a crime. Pasco County has apparently adopted this model of fascist efficiency.
The Sheriff's Office sends people a four-page letter that begins: "We are pleased to inform you that you have been selected…" Unfortunately, they have not already won $10 million but will instead endure enhanced police scrutiny.
"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."
According to a Tampa Bay Times investigation, the Sheriff's Office compiles Santa's naughty lists of folks it assumes will break the law eventually based on criminal histories, social networks, and other "unspecified intelligence." If you make it on the list, you can expect surprise visits from the police, usually without a search warrant or probable cause for arrest.
Four targets of the Strategic Targeted Response Unit are suing the Sheriff's Office in federal court, alleging the tactics used against them were harassment and a violation of their constitutional rights. Sheriff Chris Nocco claims the program innocently focuses on a person's criminal history or a school student's characterization as being "at risk."
"Far from being a predictive policing program that focuses on future crimes that someone may commit, the prolific offender program and the at-risk youth program are focused on serving our community," a Pasco sheriff's statement said.
Wow, the sheriff sure packed a lot of nothing into that statement.
One of the plaintiffs, Tammy Heilman, was reportedly grilled by deputies in 2016 about a dirtbike her son allegedly bought with stolen money. She was later arrested for ... get this ... opening her screen door into a deputy's chest, and spent 76 days in jail. The deputy recovered from his grievous injury, although I imagine screen doors still traumatize him.
The lawsuit against the Sheriff's Office states that “the government cannot punish you — or your friends or your family — for crimes you haven't committed." This is a complex legal argument based on at least 98 percent of the Constitution. The Sheriff's Office insists the program is intended to have a “positive impact" on people the cops harass and does not "in any way, shape or form [promote] the ideals or implementations projected in the film Minority Report." That's technically true, we guess. They don't have actual psychics. It is hard to argue with people who can literally see the future.
The Tampa Bay Times also discovered that a separate program uses schoolchildren's grades, attendance records and abuse histories to label them potential future criminals. This takes the the school-to-prison pipeline in an even more horrific direction. Sheriff Chris Nocco and the Pasco County school district claimed earlier this year that they would scale back the more egregious aspects of the program, but the pre-crime letter the Sheriff's Office is sending out implies otherwise.
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." However, the violent crimes possibly include a lot of accidental screen door assaults, and the drug offenses are often penny ante.
Plaintiff Robert Jones moved to Pasco County with his family after his oldest son, Bobby, was kicked out of a neighboring school district for fighting. The police soon turned up at their door and said they were going to “keep on eye" on them. A few days later, the cops arrested Bobby, claiming they'd found sandwich bags with “trace amounts of weed" during their first visit. Bobby was just 15 at the time, but while he was later acquitted, the police turned its attention to Robert, who said:
They started coming every day ... three, four (times). They didn't even wait for me to come home. They'd come early, when my kids were home, and bang on the windows and doors. “Where's your dad at?" “Where's your brother at?"
The police started ticketing Jones for BS offenses like his grass being too high or his address being hard to see on the street. (This was caught on video.) Jones was arrested five times over six months. The harassment only stopped once the Jones family abandoned their life in Pasco County.
The grotesque letter from the Sheriff's Office claims the police “are committed to your success" and want to help you "begin a new path," which apparently leads to either a Pasco County jail or another town entirely. We'd say this shouldn't happen in America, but who are we kidding?
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Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He writes reviews for the A.V. Club and make believe for Cafe Nordo, an immersive theatre space in Seattle. He's also on the board of the Portland Playhouse theatre. His son describes him as a “play typer guy."