Justice Department to review new Pasco intelligence effort

The federal agency expressed concerns with the program in an Aug. 6 letter to Sheriff Chris Nocco.
Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco told the Justice Department that his agency was "confused" by a federal probe into its new intelligence effort.
Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco told the Justice Department that his agency was "confused" by a federal probe into its new intelligence effort.
Published Sept. 10, 2021|Updated Sept. 10, 2021

The U.S. Department of Justice is conducting an “intensive review” of the Pasco Sheriff’s Office’s latest intelligence program, federal officials said this week.

The Justice Department sent a letter to the Sheriff’s Office on Aug. 6 — two weeks after the Tampa Bay Times reported that the Sheriff’s Office had promised increased police scrutiny for people whose criminal histories included violent crimes and drug offenses.

The Justice Department’s letter raised concerns about the methodology used to identify targets, communications with the community and the “insufficient” coordination with relevant law enforcement agencies.

“These shortcomings have the unfortunate consequence of eroding trust in the community, rather than building trust,” the letter said.

The Justice Department, which gave the Sheriff’s Office a $700,000 grant to help fund the program in 2018, directed the agency to “immediately pause its activities under this award” so it could review the program.

It said it would work with the Sheriff’s Office to convene a group of community leaders, federal law enforcement agencies and social service organizations to ensure best practices are followed — and provide a team to examine the program’s data.

In a statement to the Times on Wednesday, the Sheriff’s Office said it had worked “hand-in-hand” with Justice Department experts on the program.

The Sheriff’s Office also provided a copy of Sheriff Chris Nocco’s response to the Justice Department, in which he said his agency had followed Justice Department guidance and received positive feedback.

Nocco wrote that the Sheriff’s Office was “left confused as to the origins of the concerns and inventions expressed by the Bureau of Justice Assistance” and blamed “an exaggerated and inaccurate local media report.”

Last year, a Times investigation found the Pasco agency’s intelligence arm had targeted people considered likely to break the law in the future, sometimes making repeated visits to their homes without probable cause or a search warrant, and used school-district data to profile kids.

Much of the Times’ reporting was based on the agency’s own manuals and reports.

After the newsroom published its investigation, several civil liberties groups denounced the intelligence programs. And four Pasco residents, with the backing of a national public interest law firm, filed a federal lawsuit alleging their constitutional rights had been violated.

In addition, at the urging of a U.S. congressman, the federal Department of Education opened an investigation into the data sharing between the Pasco school district and the Sheriff’s Office. The district and the Sheriff’s Office later announced they would be scaling back the number of law enforcement officers who have access to the data, though critics have called for the sharing to be halted entirely.

The Times detailed the agency’s latest intelligence effort, focused on people who were previously arrested for violent crimes and drug offenses, in late July.

As part of that initiative, the agency created a four-page letter for those it targeted.

“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,” the letter said. “As a result of this designation, we will go to great efforts to encourage change in your life through enhanced support and increased accountability.”

The letter said the Sheriff’s Office would connect recipients with government agencies and nonprofits that could provide support. But it also said the Sheriff’s Office would share their information with other law enforcement agencies to ensure “the highest level of accountability” for future crimes they might commit.

An alliance of groups known as People Against the Surveillance of Children and Overpolicing, or the PASCO Coalition, called the letter “patronizing” and “offensive” and said it threatened police harassment.

In its correspondence with the Sheriff’s Office, the Justice Department said the letter should be withdrawn.

On Wednesday, the PASCO Coalition said it was “encouraged” to see the Justice Department investigating the program. “We look forward to learning more about this development,” the organization said in a statement.