Pasco law enforcement needs more oversight, community groups say

The groups want an independent board to review complaints alleging police misconduct.
Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco addresses the media during a 2020 press conference.
Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco addresses the media during a 2020 press conference. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]
Published Jan. 19, 2021|Updated Jan. 19, 2021

Activists in Pasco County are renewing calls for a citizen board to review allegations of police misconduct following a Tampa Bay Times investigation into the Sheriff’s Office’s use of data in policing.

The Times found the Sheriff’s Office created an algorithm to determine which residents were likely to break the law — and used it to monitor and harass them.

“Everything that the Tampa Bay Times has been reporting about the abuse of power in the Sheriff’s Office is even more of a push that this needs to get done and it needs to get done now,” said Marlowe Jones, founder of the Pasco Young Revolutionaries.

Related: Read the investigation into the Sheriff’s intelligence program

The activists want the panel to examine complaints against all law enforcement agencies in Pasco County, not just the Sheriff’s Office.

“State law gives these police agencies the abilities and authority to police themselves,” said Bill Dumas, president of Citizens Against Discrimination and Social Injustice. “It really does not work.”

In an email to the Times, Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Amanda Hunter reiterated the department’s position that it has sufficient oversight from the 500,000 Pasco residents who can vote to elect the sheriff.

Zephyrhills police Chief Derek Brewer said in a statement that he is “not opposed to civilian oversight as long as it is functional for both the community and the police.” The Port Richey Police Department declined to comment. Calls and emails to the county’s other police departments were not returned.

This isn’t the first time Pasco activists have proposed such a panel.

In March 2018, Citizens Against Discrimination and Social Injustice sent a letter to Sheriff Chris Nocco describing “overzealous” policing by his agency and calling for a volunteer board to review complaints.

Nocco didn’t respond directly to the suggestion, the group said at the time.

Later that month, the Sheriff’s Office announced that it had named its general counsel, Lindsay Moore, as its first constitutional policing adviser, tasked with ensuring deputies upheld citizens’ constitutional rights.

The agency also created a Community Advisory Committee.

Critics say an independent review panel is still needed.

Dumas said there is no way to make a complaint against the Sheriff’s Office without going through the agency itself.

“I have too many people tell me, ‘Mr. Dumas, I’m afraid to go down to the Sheriff’s Office and make a complaint,’ " he said.

The Community Advisory Committee does not appear to play that role. According to its bylaws, its mission is to “build a diverse team inclusive of multiple approaches and points of view, regardless of race, gender, age, religion, identity, and experience, which is representative of the community served by the Pasco Sheriff’s Office.”

Diversity, the bylaws add, “builds a stronger partnership between deputies and the community” and “provides a line of communication to the Pasco Sheriff’s Office on important community issues regarding crime prevention, youth programs, effective law enforcement practices, and community policing initiatives.”

Asked if the committee reviews allegations of misconduct, Hunter replied: “Not directly, although any member is more than welcome to bring up any topic they wish at the meetings.”

Dumas said he and others decided to revive the proposal in part because local leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement said they had been targeted by police agencies in recent months.

The Times’ reporting on the Sheriff’s Office was another impetus, he said.

The news organization found that the agency used its algorithm to generate lists of targets and sent deputies to their homes repeatedly, looking for reasons to write tickets and make arrests. Deputies said they were ordered to make targets’ lives miserable.

The Times also reported that the Sheriff’s Office kept a list of schoolchildren it deemed at risk of becoming criminals later in life based on factors including their grades and child-welfare histories. It did not tell the children or their parents.

The agency has said it uses the list to provide mentoring and resources to at-risk kids. Experts have called it a misuse of kids’ confidential data.

Since the Times’ investigations published, the ACLU of Florida, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Institute for Justice have said they are considering filing lawsuits and launching public advocacy campaigns. In addition, the Brennan Center for Justice and the Future of Privacy Forum have publicly condemned the programs and called for change.

A citizen review board would not be unique to Pasco. The Tampa and St. Petersburg police departments already have them.

The board in Tampa has come under scrutiny from civil rights leaders who say it should have more power. The Tampa City Council will consider making changes to the board at an upcoming meeting.