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Public interest groups take aim at Pasco sheriff’s data-driven policing programs

The organizations are considering legal action or advocacy campaigns in response to a Tampa Bay Times investigation.
Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco speaks at a press conference in January in Dade City.
Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco speaks at a press conference in January in Dade City. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]
Published Dec. 5, 2020
Updated Dec. 5, 2020

Civil liberties groups are vowing to take action after a Tampa Bay Times investigation revealed organized harassment of Pasco County residents and data-driven profiling of Pasco’s schoolchildren by the Sheriff’s Office.

One public interest law firm has sent mailers, looking for plaintiffs for a potential lawsuit against the policing agency. Several prominent civil rights groups are weighing legal action and public advocacy campaigns.

The moves will bring a new level of scrutiny to Sheriff Chris Nocco’s intelligence-led policing initiative, which has grown for almost a decade with little notice or oversight.

The Institute for Justice, a national public interest law firm, sent out flyers to Pasco County residents about their experience with the Sheriff's Office.
The Institute for Justice, a national public interest law firm, sent out flyers to Pasco County residents about their experience with the Sheriff's Office. [ Institute for Justice ]

“It’s very clear to us that a policy like this one is unconscionable and should not be able to continue,” said Micah W. Kubic, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. “In order for this to go away, there will have to be action taken.”

In September, a Times investigation found that the department monitored and harassed people who were deemed likely to commit crimes in the future. They were targeted by an algorithm that considered their arrest history, whether they had been suspected of a crime and whether they had been a victim to multiple crimes, among other factors.

Deputies showed up at the targets’ homes repeatedly, looking for reasons to write code enforcement tickets or make arrests.

In November, the Times revealed that the agency also kept track of middle and high schoolers in the county who were likely to “fall into a life of crime” based on criteria that included whether they had bad grades or experienced household abuse and trauma.

[Click to read all of our coverage on the Sheriff’s Office’s data-driven policing programs.]

The programs infringe on constitutional rights and student privacy laws, said the public interest groups, which included the ACLU of Florida, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

In response, the Sheriff’s Office said in a statement that it would “not back down nor apologize for keeping our community and children safe.”

The agency called the Times’ reporting “yellow journalism” and said the news organization had “perverted the truth.” The full statement is posted at the bottom of this article.

Nocco has declined multiple requests for interviews about this reporting over the last year.

The use of technology and personal data in law enforcement is posing unprecedented challenges to civil liberties in the modern era. Widespread infringements, like the surveillance of digital communications by the National Security Agency, have drawn intense scrutiny.

But communities are less aware of the aggressive use of data by their local law enforcement agencies, experts said. And civil liberties groups called the program in Pasco, which began when Nocco took office in 2011, one of the most extreme examples they’ve seen in recent history.

“The worst case scenarios in our head, played out exactly,” said Matthew Guariglia, a policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an international nonprofit that focuses on defending civil liberties in the digital age.

[Watch body-camera footage of deputies interacting with families targeted by the Sheriff’s Office]

Both the ACLU of Florida and the Southern Poverty Law Center said they are strategizing about the best way forward. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which typically works to support grassroots action, said it is ready to help any groups on the ground.

“This program overall is morally indefensible, legally questionable and based on junk science,” said Kubic of the ACLU. “There are very clear legal and constitutional problems with this policy so it’s about figuring out the most appropriate response.”

At the Southern Poverty Law Center, “we are reaching out to other organizations and contemplating what strategies to employ to address what we see as an egregious violation of students’ rights,” said Bacardi Jackson, a senior supervising attorney for children’s rights.

One national public interest law firm is already taking action on the algorithmic policing program.

The Institute for Justice, which describes itself as libertarian and says it “litigates to limit the size and scope of government power,” sent mailers to Pasco residents asking if they had been harassed by the Sheriff’s Office.

In its flyers, the Institute for Justice asks Pasco County residents if they've been harassed by the Sheriff's Office.
In its flyers, the Institute for Justice asks Pasco County residents if they've been harassed by the Sheriff's Office. [ Institute for Justice ]

“We have had a lot of people reach out to us, some of whom appeared in the story and others who saw the flyer,” attorney Joshua House said.

The organization is now considering its legal options, House said.

“Potentially, what we are talking about is a lawsuit that says that using code enforcement as a way of cajoling people to give information . . . is not a proper use of the code enforcement process,” he said.

The institute is also looking at the schools program. The Times found that the Sheriff’s Office uses children’s confidential education and child-welfare data to predict if they are at risk of becoming future criminals.

The Sheriff’s Office said it does not inform the kids or their parents of the designation and uses the information only to identify which kids need mentoring and resources. But it declined to provide specifics on what help it offers, aside from a fishing program and a closet for kids who need clothing.

“There’s a huge Fourth Amendment issue with a government agency giving data to the police,” House said.

In its statement Friday, the Sheriff’s Office said “we will continue to do all in our power to prevent another tragedy such as Marjorie Stoneman Douglas while serving our community and children.”

The department also accused the Times of omitting from its reporting an interview with Bryanna Fox, an associate professor at the University of South Florida’s Department of Criminology whose research found correlations between childhood trauma and future offending.

“The Times interviewed Dr. Fox, who disputed the findings in the Times’ ‘investigation,’ but refused to publish any comment from her as it did not fit the Times’ pre-existing, anti-law enforcement narrative,” the office wrote.

But on Friday, Fox told the Times: “I was honestly surprised that response was given. I don’t think that accurately characterizes my stance.” She emailed a reporter once for the story and only generally described her own research.

Fox said that she didn’t have any information on how her work was being used by the Sheriff’s Office and wasn’t involved in any of the programs featured in the Times investigation.

“There is nothing — your gender, your age, your prior abuse history, your genetics and psychology — none of it is a true predictor of crime,” she said of her research. “Even when we have multiple risk factors.”

The Pasco School Board did not take up the issue at a regular meeting earlier this week.

Superintendent Kurt Browning previously told a reporter he didn’t know student data was being used like this. Later, two of the five board members said they believed the data-sharing agreement between the Sheriff’s Office and the School Board contained adequate safeguards.

Jessica Alcantara, a staff attorney with a focus on education at the Advancement Project, a national civil rights advocacy group, said most data-sharing agreements have “no teeth” — and that the School Board had an obligation to dig deeper.

“How dare they abdicate their responsibility?” Alcantara said.

“They are responsible for this,” she added. “If they don’t know, learn about it. Why is something going on in your community that you don’t know about?”

[All of our coverage on the Sheriff’s Office’s intelligence efforts is at tampabay.com/pascointel.]

The Sheriff’s Office’s full response:

The Sheriff’s Office has sent lengthy responses to each story in this series. Its latest statement largely mirrors what the agency has said previously, including repeating some points that are not accurate. Click here to read the 30 pages of responses to the original investigation, with annotations.

“The Pasco Sheriff’s Office will not back down nor apologize for keeping our community and children safe. In addition, we will continue to do all in our power to prevent another tragedy such as Marjorie Stoneman Douglas while serving our community and children. We hope that any group with concerns would contact us directly so we can provide them the truth.

“We will have no additional comment to the Times regarding this “investigation.” It is clear that the Times has perverted the truth, relying on statements from individuals with a well-documented bias against the Sheriff’s Office, including a former employee who engaged in an inappropriate relationship with a confidential informant, and other individuals with serious charges in their backgrounds which calls into question their credibility. The Times has repeatedly demonstrated there is no interest in seeking out and reporting the truth, despite the many responses we have provided to you numerous times.

“Furthermore, despite the numerous facts provided to the Times, the Times continues to conflate or not understand the difference between ILP and predictive policing. We again refer you to the voluminous documentation we have previously provided about the stark differences between these two terms. As noted below, this is just one of many concerning elements to this “investigation” that calls into question the Times’ journalistic credibility. The carefully crafted marketing campaign surrounding the articles, on both the Times’ and its reporters’ behalf, also presents several hallmark traits of classic yellow journalism, which is yet another astounding aspect of this entire enterprise.

“It has become abundantly evident that the Times has no interest in the truth, which we have provided to you numerous times. This is further evidenced by the constant conflation of School District programs with much narrower PSO programs, and the lack of transparency on behalf of your publication. There has been no effort to inform the public of similar programs in other jurisdictions throughout our state, and this is clearly an attempt, to use the Times’ own phrasing, to target PSO specifically. Quite frankly, this flies in the face and spirit of investigative journalism and the pursuit of uncovering a full and complete fact and evidence-based investigation.

“In that same spirit, we also note that the Times interviewed Dr. Fox, who disputed the findings in the Times’ ‘investigation,’ but refused to publish any comment from her as it did not fit the Times’ pre-existing, anti-law enforcement narrative. [Editor’s note: Fox disagreed with this characterization. See the story for more information.]

“This is a concerning lack of journalistic integrity and we have no interest in continuing to engage with the Times on this subject when the Times ignores it from multiple individuals, including respected academics at our own state universities.

“This anti-law enforcement agenda and reporting is quite clearly driven by the entities making donations to the Times’ investigative fund and we would again reiterate our request that the Times publish those who have contributed donations to this story as it is important for the public knowledge and to present a more complete picture of why the Times chooses to only include those who fit the Times’ pre-existing narrative. We are very concerned that ‘pay-to-play’ journalism is alive and well in this reporting and will not be a party to it.

“It is interesting these interest groups have allegedly notified the Times of their intentions, yet to date, no group has reached out to the Sheriff’s Office for factual information, again bringing into question their true intentions and we would reiterate our invitation above for any of these groups to contact us for the truth.

“This release of information would also explain the baffling decision by the Times to ignore every other agency in the state who utilizes the ILP philosophy and follows state statute regarding school safety.

“We look forward to working with our community to continue to keep it and our children safe from crime and tragedy and would urge the Times to print this response in full out of journalistic integrity.”