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For some Pasco residents, recent Sheriff's Office changes aren't enough

Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco at a news conference March 16.  TYLISA JOHNSON   |  Times
Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco at a news conference March 16. TYLISA JOHNSON | Times
Published Apr. 24, 2018

NEW PORT RICHEY — Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco recently appointed a constitutional law advisor, saying he wanted to ensure good officer conduct and provide a new channel for citizen complaints.

Two local human rights organizations, however, say the Sheriff's Office isn't doing enough. And they have proposed a different solution.

In a March 12 letter to Nocco, Citizens Against Discrimination and Social Injustice (CADSI) and the Pasco Task Force proposed what they call a "long overdue" civilian oversight committee for law enforcement agencies in the county, beginning with the Sheriff's Office. Combined, the advocacy groups have more than 50 members.

Their letter expressed concerns about "overzealous policing" and a "lack of confidence in the ability of police to provide unbiased policing of minority citizens."

"(We) believe the citizens of Pasco County need a countywide citizens' police oversight agency," the letter read. "Such an agency ... will consist of volunteer citizens tasked with receiving complaints of misconduct against sworn officers and/or employees of the Pasco County Sheriff's Office."

Nocco did not respond directly to the groups' suggestion, said CADSI President Bill Dumas.

Chase Daniels, assistant executive director at the Sheriff's Office, said Nocco has said he is "an elected Sheriff with a review panel of over 500,000 Pasco residents every single day."

In recent months, the organizations spread word about their oversight committee idea through letters, e-mails, other organizations, word of mouth and Facebook posts.

Ideally, the committee would be a handful of resident volunteers, said Frank Roder, CADSI vice president, and "would be a reflection of the community, without partisan politics."

Group leaders said they intended to talk with county commissioners about an oversight committee.

However, Pasco County Commissioner Mike Moore said the commission "has no authority over the Sheriff's Office."

Dumas told the Tampa Bay Times they envision an oversight committee eventually for all local law enforcement agencies, "but you can't handle them all at one time."

"We got reports and we knew of problems with the sheriff's department," he said.

Shortly after CADSI formed in December 2016, Dumas said, members received dozens of messages and calls from residents around the county who complained about Pasco County deputies' conduct. Last summer, CADSI members met multiple times with Sheriff's Office leaders to request investigations for some of the complaints they received.

"How many did they investigate that we asked for?" Dumas asked. "Not a one. They always came up with an excuse, they always had a reason."

Group members said Nocco's recent announcement of an internal investigation reaffirms the need for an oversight committee. The investigation came after Nocco said Sheriff's Office supervisors failed, for nearly three months, to act in the case of a deputy alleged to have tampered with evidence.

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It usually takes a "combination of things" for civilians to propose a police oversight body, said Liana Perez.

Perez is director of operations for the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, a 24-year-old organization that studies oversight models and gives guidance to citizens interested in starting their own. She said the trend of civilian oversight has grown in recent years.

"Sometimes it's the result of a high profile event … And sometimes it's the result of one single incident where they realize we don't have oversight and we need it," Perez said.

The association lists nearly 150 oversight organizations on its site. Closest to home are Tampa's Citizens Review Board and Saint Petersburg's Civilian Police Review Committee.

"We truly want to work with the Sheriff's Office," Dumas said, "I think they should be open to what citizens have to say."

Contact TyLisa C. Johnson at tyjohnson@tampabay.com. Follow @tylisajohnson.