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Pasco Sheriff's Facebook page a wall of shame for those accused of domestic violence

Marlo Sue Johnson, 37, at her home in Wesley Chapel on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018, shows on her phone the mugshot that was taken when she was arrested for domestic battery on Sept. 25, 2017. Her ex-husband accused her of slapping him in the face. Though the charge was never pursued by prosecutors, her mugshot appeared on the Pasco County sheriff's Facebook page and remains there. [ALESSANDRA DA PRA | Times]
Published Feb. 17, 2018

Marlo Sue Johnson was just getting home after 30 hours at the Land O'Lakes jail on a domestic battery charge in September when the alerts started to light up her phone.

"Ummm is this the Marlo Sue I know?" someone commented on her mug shot posted on the Pasco County Sheriff's Facebook account, referring viewers to the mother of two's profile.

"Glad to see women are held accountable now," wrote a stranger. "Oh look, another bunch of losers," wrote another.

It wouldn't be long before several of Johnson's neighbors and family members saw her sullen face in the photo taken after her estranged ex-husband accused her of slapping his face.

Johnson's arrest was spotlighted as part of the latest social media push by Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco: posting the mug shots of those accused of domestic violence on the department's Facebook page.

Never mind that prosecutors declined to formally charge Johnson in December after her ex took back his story. Her image remains on the site, shared and commented upon more than two dozen times each.

"I was lucky that I lived here my whole life so some people stood up for me, but I stayed silent," said the 37-year-old Wesley Chapel resident. "I kept going back to see what else people were saying about me. I got obsessive."

• • •

The Pasco County Sheriff's Office has amped up its social media presence in the past year, actively sharing photos with commentary, images of crimes caught on video and nightly reminders to lock home doors by 9 p.m.

It has the biggest Facebook fan base of all Tampa Bay-area law enforcement agencies by far based on the 113,000 followers who have "liked" the page. The Pinellas and Hillsborough sheriff's offices each serve twice as many people but have fewer than half as many followers.

The mug shot albums are some of the Pasco page's most popular posts. Each batch is accompanied by the header: "Domestic violence is not acceptable and will not be tolerated, in any capacity."

They attract comments that are often sexist or have racist undertones, or that poke fun at less-than-flattering photos.

They also attract debate. Some commend the Sheriff's Office for a job well done, while others question posting the mug shots before charges are formally filed or there is a guilty verdict in court.

The decision to post the booking images came straight from Nocco, as a way to deter abuse.

"We unfortunately have seen where the cycle of domestic violence continues," he said in a statement. "Our concern is for the victims of crime and we are trying to send a clear and unequivocal message that domestic violence will not be tolerated in Pasco. In addition, domestic violence calls are some of the most dangerous calls that law enforcement respond to."

Johnson, who has no criminal record in Florida, said she lost her job after her boss at a dance studio saw the photo on Facebook. She said she hasn't been able to find a new one since.

"They hurt my family, cost me my job, cost my kids food in their bellies," she said of the Sheriff's Office. "That happened at the end of September and I'm still trying to pull my life together."

• • •

Of the four arrests publicized on Sept. 26 along with Johnson's, only one led to a conviction, court records show. The other cases were dropped.

Domestic battery charges often fail to bring convictions. That's because, even in cases where evidence of abuse appears clear, spouses or partners often refuse to testify.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline surveyed victims in 2015 and estimated up to a quarter don't report their abuse at all. In 2016, the most recent available data, Pasco County had 3,671 reports related to domestic violence, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. That's similar to the rate of arrests in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.

The most common reasons for not reporting are that family members think the matter is private or they fear retaliation from the abuser, said George Washington University law professor Joan Meier.

She said that while the Sheriff's Office may think it's empowering people to report, their online "town square" humiliation tactic could further discourage people from calling police.

"It's an agonizing process to turn someone you love over to the law," said Meier, a nationally recognized expert in domestic abuse. "It takes courage to call the police and let your home trauma be seen and known by a total stranger."

Those fears already exist without a partner or family member's image being blasted to their community on social media, she said.

"If I was ever in a situation like that, last thing I would do was call the cops," Johnson said. "If I was with a man and his face is posted all over Facebook and everyone is commenting calling him a piece of crap .?.?. now I'm fearing for my life."

• • •

The public's fascination with mug shots — especially of the "Florida man" variety of people charged with bizarre crimes — isn't new. Weekly publications full of them are sold at convenience stores; websites are dedicated to them.

Like many newspapers, the Tampa Bay Times website has a mug shots page, but it doesn't allow comments and photos are removed after two months. It also has a disclaimer that those pictured haven't been convicted of the crimes that led to their arrest.

Mug shots from the Pasco sheriff's Facebook postings show up in other people's news feeds based on a user's prior "likes," or because of what friends are sharing.

That's how Johnson's photo spread so quickly among people who knew her. Although she has kept the ordeal from her 12-year-old son, she wonders how long it will take him to search her name and see the photo and comments.

The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office stopped posting booking photos on its online jail page in 2014. That came in response to people creating automated programs to "scrape" the images into mug shot websites and making those arrested pay to have them removed.

Pinellas also approaches its social media activity differently than its Pasco counterparts. It only posts mug shots if investigators are using Facebook to try to locate a suspect.

Generally, the office tries to keep things upbeat, said Pinellas Sgt. Spencer Gross. Its Facebook also has about a third of the followers Pasco does.

"Really, with any of our social media our philosophy is more of a positive interaction or engagement with the community," he said.

• • •

Pasco Sheriff's Office also does that, but in addition to posts humanizing deputies, they've shared a photo of a "sad criminal of the day" being held by his dreadlocks and an embarrassing story of a woman who mistakenly turned a medical-grade thermos of sperm into a potential explosive.

Johnson said the posts mock the community rather than connect with it.

She recently posted a message on the Pasco sheriff's Facebook page encouraging the office to adopt a more positive tone and deter people from making fun of people who are arrested.

"To make fun of people's attributes, spew hate, make assumptions, and be the judge and jury for these individuals is disgusting," she wrote in the post.

The message was marked as spam by users, according to screenshots she provided to the Times, and hidden from view on the Facebook page.

Contact Sara DiNatale at sdinatale@tampabay.com. Follow @sara_dinatale.

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