Incident 195: Predictive Policing Program by Florida Sheriff’s Office Allegedly Violated Residents’ Rights and Targeted Children of Vulnerable Groups

Description: The Intelligence-Led Policing model rolled out by the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office was allegedly developed based on flawed science and biased data that also contained sensitive information and irrelevant attributes about students, which critics said to be discriminatory.
Alleged: Unknown developed an AI system deployed by Pasco Sheriff's Office, which harmed Pasco residents , Pasco Black students and Pasco students with disabilities.

Suggested citation format

Perkins, Kate. (2015-09-01) Incident Number 195. in McGregor, S. (ed.) Artificial Intelligence Incident Database. Responsible AI Collaborative.

Incident Stats

Incident ID
195
Report Count
12
Incident Date
2015-09-01
Editors
Sean McGregor, Khoa Lam

Tools

New ReportNew ReportDiscoverDiscover

Incidents Reports

Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco took office in 2011 with a bold plan: to create a cutting-edge intelligence program that could stop crime before it happened.

What he actually built was a system to continuously monitor and harass Pasco County residents, a Tampa Bay Times investigation has found.

First the Sheriff’s Office generates lists of people it considers likely to break the law, based on arrest histories, unspecified intelligence and arbitrary decisions by police analysts.

Then it sends deputies to find and interrogate anyone whose name appears, often without probable cause, a search warrant or evidence of a specific crime.

They swarm homes in the middle of the night, waking families and embarrassing people in front of their neighbors. They write tickets for missing mailbox numbers and overgrown grass, saddling residents with court dates and fines. They come again and again, making arrests for any reason they can.

One former deputy described the directive like this: “Make their lives miserable until they move or sue.”

In just five years, Nocco’s signature program has ensnared almost 1,000 people.

At least 1 in 10 were younger than 18, the Times found.

Some of the young people were labeled targets despite having only one or two arrests.

Rio Wojtecki, 15, became a target in September 2019, almost a year after he was arrested for sneaking into carports with a friend and stealing motorized bicycles.

Those were the only charges against Rio, and he already had a state-issued juvenile probation officer checking on him. Yet from September 2019 to January 2020, Pasco Sheriff’s deputies went to his home at least 21 times, dispatch logs show.

They showed up at the car dealership where his mom worked, looked for him at a friend’s house and checked his gym to see if he had signed in.

More than once, the deputies acknowledged that Rio wasn’t getting into trouble. They mostly grilled him about his friends, according to body-camera video of the interactions. But he had been identified as a target, they said, so they had to keep checking on him.

Since September 2015, the Sheriff’s Office has sent deputies on checks like those more than 12,500 times, dispatch logs show.

Deputies gave the mother of one teenage target a $2,500 fine because she had five chickens in her backyard. They arrested another target’s father after peering through a window in his house and noticing a 17-year-old friend of his son smoking a cigarette.

As they make checks, deputies feed information back into the system, not just on the people they target, but on family members, friends and anyone else in the target’s orbit.

In the past two years alone, two of the nation’s largest law enforcement agencies have scrapped similar programs following public outcries and reports documenting serious flaws.

In Pasco, however, the initiative has expanded. Last summer, the Sheriff’s Office announced plans to begin keeping tabs on people who have been repeatedly committed to psychiatric hospitals.

The Times shared its findings with the Sheriff’s Office six weeks before this story published. Nocco declined multiple interview requests.

In statements that spanned more than 30 pages, the agency said it stands behind its program — part of a larger initiative it calls intelligence-led policing. It said other local departments use similar techniques and accused the Times of cherry-picking examples and painting “basic law enforcement functions” as harassment.

The Sheriff’s Office said its program was designed to reduce bias in policing by using objective data. And it provided statistics showing a decline in burglaries, larcenies and auto thefts since the program began in 2011.

“This reduction in property crime has a direct, positive impact on the lives of the citizens of Pasco County and, for that, we will not apologize,” one of the statements said. “Our first and primary mission is to serve and protect our community and the Intelligence Led Policing philosophy assists us in achieving that mission.”

But Pasco’s drop in property crimes was similar to the decline in the seven-largest nearby police jurisdictions. Over the same time period, violent crime increased only in Pasco.

Criminal justice experts said they were stunned by the agency’s practices. They compared the tactics to child abuse, mafia harassment and surveillance that could be expected under an authoritarian regime.

“Morally repugnant,” said Matthew Barge, an expert in police practices and civil rights who oversaw court-ordered agreements to address police misconduct in Cleveland and Baltimore.

“One of the worst manifestations of the intersection of junk science and bad policing — and an absolute absence of common sense and humanity — that I have seen in my career," said David Kennedy, a renowned criminologist at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, whose research on crime prevention is referenced in Pasco’s policies.

The Times’ examination of Pasco’s intelligence program comes amid a national debate over the role of police in society and calls to reduce funding for law enforcement or replace entire departments.

For years, the program’s inner workings have remained largely out of public view, even as Nocco has touted its merits during debates and community forums. Times reporters combed through thousands of pages of documents, watched hours of body-camera footage and spent months obtaining and analyzing the target list, which had not been previously released.

Pasco is an overwhelmingly white county, and the program did not appear to disproportionately target people based on race.

But juvenile offenders, regardless of race, were an outsized priority for the intelligence program, according to former deputies and a Times data analysis.

Of the 20 addresses visited most by its dedicated enforcement teams, more than half were home to middle- or high-schoolers who were identified as targets.

BUILDING THE MACHINE

Nocco took over the Pasco Sheriff’s Office in 2011 when his predecessor retired early and then-Gov. Rick Scott appointed him to finish the term.

Nocco was 35 and a newly promoted major who had joined the Sheriff’s Office two years earlier. He had deep ties to Republican politics but far less experience in law enforcement than the outgoing sheriff.

He quickly rolled out a plan to remake the department that sounded like a pitch for a Hollywood blockbuster: Moneyball meets Minority Report.

The intent was to reduce property crime. The agency, which has 650 sworn law enforcement officers and covers a county of roughly 500,000 residents, would use data to predict where future crimes were likely to take place and who was likely to commit them, Nocco told reporters. Then deputies would find those people and “take them out” — thwarting criminal activity before it happened.

“Instead of being reactive,” he said, “we are going to be proactive.”

He later said the approach was not unlike the way the federal government goes after terrorists.

The Pasco Sheriff’s Office wasn’t the only local law enforcement agency trying to predict crime. The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office had already started using crime statistics to pinpoint high-crime areas and identify repeat offenders. The two departments discussed techniques, the Pasco agency said in one of its statements.

The Pasco Sheriff’s Office won a $95,000 federal grant to upgrade its computer systems and hired a small team of civilian analysts. At first, the analysts focused on identifying geographic crime trends and gathering information from people in jail, said former Lt. Brian Prescott, who oversaw the team and retired in 2014.

But Nocco wanted to make proactive strategies and intelligence gathering his agency’s central philosophy. All employees were required to take a two-hour course on intelligence-led policing, Prescott said. Supervisors got additional training.

Nocco referenced the program often as he ran for election for the first time in 2012. Some residents appreciated it so much, he boasted in one campaign appearance, they threw deputies a block party.

He won the race and continued building his intelligence machine.

Today, the Sheriff’s Office has a 30-person intelligence-led policing section with a $2.8 million budget, run by a former senior counterterrorism analyst who was assigned to the National Counterterrorism Center. The No. 2 is a former Army intelligence officer.

Twenty analysts scour police reports, property records, Facebook pages, bank statements and surveillance photos to help deputies across the agency investigate crimes, according to the agency’s latest intelligence-led policing manual.

Since September 2015, they have also decided who goes on the list of people deemed likely to break the law.

The people on the list are what the department calls “prolific offenders.” The manual describes them as individuals who have “taken to a career of crime” and are “not likely to reform.”

Potential prolific offenders are first identified using an algorithm the department invented that gives people scores based on their criminal records. People get points each time they’re arrested, even when the charges are dropped. They get points for merely being a suspect.

The manual says people’s scores are “enhanced” — it does not say by how much — if they miss court dates, violate their probation or appear in five or more police reports, even if they were listed as a witness or the victim.

The Sheriff’s Office told the Times that a computer generates the scores and creates an initial pool of offenders every three months. But the analysts go through the list by hand and make a determination about which 100 people should be on the list.

The analysts also work with the command staff to pick “Top 5” offenders, who are thought to be key players in criminal networks, and “district targets,” who the department has enough evidence to charge with a crime. The manual does not say what criteria they use.

Deputies visit the prolific offenders and the other targets as part of their daily responsibilities.

Nocco described the practice as “bothering criminals” to the Council of Neighborhood Associations in 2012.

The manual describes the goal in aggressive terms.

“If the offender does not feel the pressure, if the offender is not arrested when they commit their next crime, or if the offender is left to feel their punishment is menial,” the manual says, “the strategy will have no impact.”

‘ONE WAY OR ANOTHER’

Inside the agency, keeping the machine humming was a top priority, six former deputies and department leaders told the Times.

“At the end of every shift, they’d want to know how many prolific-offender checks your squad did,” said Chris Starnes, a former lieutenant who oversaw patrol and narcotics units.

Former Capt. James Steffens, who was previously chief of the New Port Richey Police Department, said deputies who didn’t visit enough targets could be removed from special assignments or sent to work in districts far from their homes. Their supervisors could too.

Both Starnes and Steffens resigned from the Sheriff’s Office. Starnes is a plaintiff in an ongoing federal lawsuit that accuses the agency of pushing out employees who criticized specific policies, including the intelligence program. Steffens is also suing the agency, alleging racial discrimination, retaliation and defamation. The Sheriff’s Office denies the claims.

Some deputies — those on Strategic Targeted Area Response teams, or STAR teams — were dedicated to the program’s objectives. Among their assignments: to “hunt down” the targets, according to a post the Sheriff’s Office made on its Facebook page in 2017.

Later in the post, then-STAR team Deputy John Riyad described the allure of being on the team: “I want to go out and find people to arrest so we can prevent those crimes from happening.”

The job included “intensive monitoring,” as the agency’s strategic plan described it. Email reports recount STAR deputies driving by targets’ homes, hunting for intel. They spotted an orange mountain bike outside one young offender’s house and checked to see if any bicycles matching that description had been reported stolen. (None had.) They found another young offender riding his scooter in front of his residence on the county’s east side.

“He has cut his hair, which is now short,” a deputy wrote in an undated report. “He advised after the summer break he will be going to 9th grade at Schwettman (Education Center). He claimed not to be associating with any of his old friends.”

It also involved “directed harassment,” former STAR team Cpl. Royce Rodgers said in an interview with the Times.

Rodgers, who also resigned from the Sheriff’s Office and is a plaintiff in the lawsuit with Starnes, said his captain ordered him to make the contacts aggressive enough that targets would want to move.

Rodgers and his team would show up at people’s homes just to make them uncomfortable, he said. They didn’t always log the contacts in the agency’s official records. He recalled parking five patrol cars outside one target’s home all night and visiting some as many as six times in a single day.

They would do the same to targets’ friends, relatives and other “associates,” he said.

“Those associates might have nothing to do with the offender,” Rodgers said. But as long as the analysts listed them in the system, “we’d harass them too,” he said.

If the targets, their family members or associates wouldn’t speak to deputies or answer questions, STAR team deputies were told to look for code enforcement violations like faded mailbox numbers, a forgotten bag of trash or overgrown grass, Rodgers said.

“We would literally go out there and take a tape measure and measure the grass if somebody didn’t want to cooperate with us,” he said.

Rodgers said people sometimes would fail to pay the fine, which would result in a warrant being issued for their arrest.

“We’d get them one way or another,” he said.

Rodgers said the tactics made him and many of his colleagues uneasy. He thought the strategy was both ineffective and unethical, he said. But when he raised concerns, he said, a supervisor threatened to strip him of his rank and send him back to patrol.

LATE-NIGHT VISITS AND CODE CITATIONS

In interviews with the Times, 21 families targeted by the program described deputies pounding on their doors at all hours of the day and night.

Nearly half said deputies sometimes surrounded their homes, lined their streets with patrol cars or shined flashlights into their windows.

Nine said they were threatened with or received code enforcement citations.

Four said they seriously considered moving. One did.

Two adults whose teenage children were targeted had no complaints about how the Sheriff’s Office had treated their families. Both said they were having trouble with their children and appreciated deputies stepping in. Another father said he was surprised but not bothered that deputies checked on his teenage daughter.

All of the others called the tactics unhelpful or unbearable.

Sheila Smith was among them. Deputies showed up at her home in Land O’ Lakes over and over in 2017 and 2018 looking for her teenage son, even though he was under court-ordered house arrest at his grandmother’s home in Hillsborough County, she said.

Their fifth visit was on Jan. 11, 2018, at 10:32 p.m. Smith stepped outside in a bathrobe and explained the situation. “He’s already under supervision,” she told the deputies politely, according to body-camera video of the encounter. “It’s not necessary for y’all to come here anymore.”

Deputies came by looking for her son at least three more times after that, the dispatch log shows. Another time, they put her husband, Vaughn Sr., in handcuffs and loaded him into the back of a cruiser, she said. They later said they had mistaken him for his brother and let him go.

In one of its statements to the Times, the Sheriff’s Office said that the incident had nothing to do with intelligence-led policing and the deputy had apologized for the confusion. But Vaughn Smith Sr. said the visit had started as so many others had: with the deputy asking about his son.

The Smiths said it was obviously harassment. They called a lawyer and considered moving out of the county, they said. They stayed only because they own their home.

The deputies didn’t only go looking for the targets themselves.

They grilled a 25-year-old woman at the Dunkin’ Donuts where she worked in September 2019 and watched her as she sat outside the building two days later, Sheriff’s Office records show.

The woman had no criminal history beyond traffic offenses. But her boyfriend was a target, and the deputies were trying to find him.

When deputies returned a third time that week, the woman said she and her boyfriend had broken up and complained that the deputies were harassing her, according to their notes. The deputies later confirmed the man they were looking for had left the state with a different woman.

People who were targeted said the checks lasted for months.

Dalanea Taylor was arrested 14 times before turning 17, mostly for burglaries and stealing cars. She went to prison, was released and stopped breaking the law, she said. But deputies kept showing up at her home. They’d ask who she was hanging out with, what she knew about certain people, if she was in a relationship.

Taylor, now 20, wouldn’t answer, she said. It felt inappropriate.

Once, after Taylor posted a photo with a male friend on Facebook, deputies asked about the friend. Later, she said, a deputy followed her in a patrol car as she walked down her street.

When deputies knocked on her door at 7:32 a.m. on New Year’s Day 2018, a family friend implored them to ease up. By then, Taylor had been out of prison for nine months and had not been re-arrested. The deputies said they would not stop monitoring her for a “couple of years,” according to their notes on the conversation.

“She advised she’s staying out of trouble,” they wrote. “She is pregnant and is expecting in June.”

Rio Wojtecki, the 15-year-old who deputies checked on 21 times, said the constant visits made him anxious. One night in January, a few hours after deputies had visited, Rio had trouble breathing and collapsed on the bathroom floor. His mother called an ambulance. Later, an emergency room doctor said anxiety was likely to blame.

In one of its statements to the Times, the Sheriff’s Office said Rio had been named a “Top 5” offender because of his “criminal network and associations.” The agency also said he is in a gang, citing criminal intelligence, but would not elaborate. He and his mother denied the allegation.

Rio wasn’t the only person in the family who felt harassed.

One night, deputies showed up at the house when Rio’s older sisters were home alone. His 19-year-old sister, KayLee, explained that Rio was with their mother at her office and went back inside.

Deputy Thomas Garmon knocked on the window and pounded on the door.

“KayLee!” he yelled, according to his body-camera video. “You’re about to have some issues.”

When she opened the door, Garmon threatened to write her a code enforcement citation for not having numbers posted on the house or mailbox unless she let them search the home for Rio. She insisted there were numbers on the mailbox but ultimately let a deputy in.

A few months later, deputies gave Rio’s mother two tickets: one for not having numbers on her house and one for a broken-down car in the driveway. She had to go to court and pay $100 in fines.

‘HOW CAN WE GET THIS DUDE?’

Many of the visits were polite, according to interviews with the program’s targets and body-camera footage of the interactions. But as deputies came back repeatedly, some of the interactions turned combative — and had serious consequences.

Rodgers, the former STAR team corporal, said he and his team would look for reasons to make arrests. Once, they spotted a teenage target through the window of his home. Another teenager was there, too, smoking a cigarette. Both refused to come outside, and the target’s father, Robert A. Jones III, wouldn’t make them.

“We couldn’t get the kids,” Rodgers recalled. “So we arrested the dad.”

Deputies charged Jones with contributing to the delinquency of a minor and resisting an officer.

The charges were dropped. But nine days later, deputies arrested Jones again, this time for missing a court hearing for a code enforcement citation he said he never received. Deputies arrested Jones a third time less than three months later, saying they found a small amount of marijuana in his house and truck.

“It was like a gang,” Jones told the Times. “They were like, ‘How can we get this dude?’ ”

The new charges against Jones — marijuana possession and child neglect — were also dropped, but not before the Sheriff’s Office posted the details of the arrest on its Facebook page.

Jones moved his family to a motel to get away from the harassment, he said. They later moved to Pinellas County.

Other families had similar experiences.

Deputies went to 14-year-old target Da’Marion Allen’s house before school one day last October to ask about a car theft they thought he was involved in. While they were there, they arrested his 53-year-old grandmother, his 28-year-old uncle and a 20-year-old female relative.

The grandmother, Michelle Dotson, was standing outside when the deputies first arrived. She said she asked them to call Da’Marion’s lawyer. But when Da’Marion came out, she said, one of the deputies tried taking him into custody.

A police report says Dotson grabbed the deputy by his wrist and refused to let go. Dotson denies the allegations. She said the only person she touched was her grandson, who has developmental disabilities and functions at the level of a young child.

Deputies said the 20-year-old relative tried to hit one of them in the head with a decorative vase. Dotson said that when deputies started crowding the foyer, she asked the relative to move the vase so it wouldn’t break.

None of the adults had been arrested before, they said. They all denied touching or threatening any deputies. Their cases are pending.

Tammy Heilman had the Sheriff’s Office policy explained bluntly to her in September 2016.

Earlier in the day, STAR team Deputy Andrew Denbo had stopped by her house asking questions about a dirt bike he thought her 16-year-old son — a Sheriff’s Office target — bought with stolen money. Heilman was taking her 7-year-old daughter to Girl Scouts. She told Denbo she wouldn’t speak without an attorney present and drove off.

Denbo noticed Heilman and her daughter were not wearing seat belts, according to the police report. He told her to stop, then followed her down the street and pulled her over.

In the report, Denbo wrote that he opened Heilman’s car door and ordered her to get out. She stayed put and called 9-1-1, saying a deputy had hurt her and she needed help, body-camera video shows.

Heilman told the Times she was scared and confused. She said her daughter had been wearing a seat belt until Denbo opened the door and the two adults began yelling at each other.

The video shows a group of deputies yanking Heilman from the car.

Heilman was arrested on charges of resisting an officer, battery on a law enforcement officer and providing false information in a prior conversation about the dirt bike. The police report says she scratched and kicked the deputies who arrested her.

Before she was taken to jail, during a conversation captured on the tape, Heilman asked why she had been arrested. “Because I told you to stop back there and you drove away,” Denbo replied.

On the way to jail, he continued: “Here’s the policy of the agency. I’ll explain it to you so it makes sense. If people themselves or people that live at a house are committing crimes and victimizing the community, then the direction we receive from our Sheriff’s Office, from the top down, is to go out there and for every single violation that person commits, to come down and enforce it upon them.”

Two years later, deputies arrested Heilman a second time, after she opened her screen door into a deputy’s chest. Heilman said it wasn’t intentional. She had a child in her arms and said the door sometimes jams. Video shows her angrily shoving the door open, but then holding it open and telling the deputies they could come inside.

Because Heilman was on probation, she wasn’t offered bail. She spent 76 days in jail. When she was offered a plea deal that sentenced her to one-year probation plus time served, she took it.

She wanted to spend Christmas with her children, she said. But the decision had lasting consequences. She is now a convicted felon. In the two years since, she said, she has been unable to find work.

‘EVERYTHING THAT’S WRONG ABOUT POLICING’

Fifteen experts on policing reviewed aspects of Pasco’s program for the Times. Five of them reviewed versions of the program’s manual.

They identified some portions of the program that are based on well-established law enforcement philosophies, including problem-oriented and community policing.

But they also pointed to what they described as serious flaws.

They noted that Pasco’s scoring system awards points based on arrests, which can reflect racially biased policing practices and doesn’t take into account whether charges were dropped or the person was acquitted.

Some experts were concerned that people can get points for having been suspected of a crime. There are no rules for what makes someone a suspect. It can boil down to who they know or how an individual detective investigates, said Sarah Brayne, a sociology professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author of a new book on big-data policing.

Ana Muñiz, a University of California, Irvine criminologist who studies gang databases, noted that the manuals don’t include a way for residents to check if they’ve been targeted or to file an appeal.

The system also lets the Sheriff’s Office collect an extraordinary amount of information on people who may not have committed a crime, said Andrew Guthrie Ferguson, a law professor at American University and national expert in predictive policing.

After reviewing the most recent manual, Ferguson said: “It feels like everything that’s wrong about policing in one document.”

Other experts said the agency’s tactics were unlikely to deter people from breaking the law and added that the program provides little extra help or social services to the people it targets.

The closest it comes is a palm-sized card with a list of 20 local health care providers, nonprofits and government agencies that deputies are supposed to hand out. The cards contain names, addresses, phone numbers and nothing else.

Initially, a half-dozen of the program’s targets said deputies never gave them even that much information. That changed last month. After the Times presented its findings to the Sheriff’s Office, both Rio’s mother and Heilman said deputies came to their houses with printouts of a community resource guide from the local office of the Florida Department of Health.

Ferguson said programs like Pasco’s were popular a decade or so ago. But in recent years, he said, the concept had been largely discredited.

The Los Angeles Police Department used to have a scoring system to identify violent offenders. But critics attacked the program as biased and invasive, and the department’s Inspector General found that half of the 637 people in the database had one or no violent-crime arrests. The department discontinued the program in August 2018.

The Chicago Police Department had its own system that sought to identify people who were likely to be involved in shootings, either as the perpetrator or victim. But the city’s Inspector General found the program was unfair and based on outdated and inaccurate data. The agency quietly ended the program in November 2019.

The Pasco Sheriff’s Office said it developed its scoring system with the help of a top expert. The agency said it created the rubric “in concert with the recommendations of Dr. Jerry Ratcliffe, who we continue to partner with on this program.”

Ratcliffe, a national expert on intelligence-led policing, told the Times he hadn’t spoken with anyone at the Pasco Sheriff’s Office “in years and years.” He said his involvement in the program was limited to a two- or three-day training he provided in 2013.

Told this by the Times, the Sheriff’s Office responded that Ratcliffe’s books are required reading, that a Pasco captain contributed to Ratcliffe’s most recent book and that several members of the agency attended a training Ratcliffe conducted this year in St. Petersburg.

TEENAGERS AS TARGETS

Young people were a major focus of the program, according to records and interviews.

Rodgers, the former STAR team corporal, said his squad “chased almost exclusively juveniles.” Denbo told Heilman, the mother who was arrested twice, that he spent most of his time dealing with kids and their families, according to body-camera footage.

The number of teenagers who were targeted is likely larger than the Times was able to identify.

The agency wouldn’t provide a list that specified when people were added, so the Times started out by excluding anyone who had been arrested after turning 18. That left 88 people. Through interviews, the reporters identified another seven who were targeted as minors and later arrested, raising the total to 10 percent of the list.

About 7.5 percent of people arrested in Pasco County are 17 or younger.

In its statements to the Times, the Sheriff’s Office said the program was designed to address types of property crimes that teenagers often commit. It pointed specifically to a number of auto thefts by young people in neighboring Pinellas County that the Times has reported on extensively.

The statements included an extensive recounting of the criminal records of the juveniles featured in this story. “Just because an individual is 12 does not make him or her incapable of committing crime,” it said of one of the program’s youngest targets.

Kennedy, the John Jay criminologist, called the agency’s tactics “child abuse.”

“There is nothing that justifies terrorizing school kids,” he said.

Other experts pointed to studies showing aggressive policing makes juvenile offenders more likely to reoffend, not less. They said the criminal justice system treats young people more leniently than adults because their brains are not fully developed and they are more likely to be rehabilitated.

The Sheriff’s Office uses juvenile records the same as adult records in its score calculation. Its latest manual encourages deputies to make sure young prolific offenders don’t get the benefits of the juvenile justice system: It recommends they be charged as adults instead of children.

Pasco isn’t the only local law enforcement agency that pays extra attention to young offenders. Several Pinellas County agencies have a joint program to monitor teenagers on court-ordered home detention or probation. But teens must have at least five felony arrests in one year to qualify. It is run in partnership with the state Department of Juvenile Justice and brings social workers and counselors on visits to the teenagers’ homes, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri told the Times.

State Department of Juvenile Justice spokeswoman Amanda Slama said her agency had limited knowledge of Pasco’s program and was not involved. She declined to comment further.

Some of the minors who were targeted were especially vulnerable.

Twenty of the targets were 15 or younger when the list was provided to the Times. Two are 13 today, including Jahheen Winters, who has autism and post-traumatic stress disorder from childhood abuse, his mother said.

At least three of the targets had developmental disabilities: Jahheen, Da’Marion and Lorenzo Gary, a 17-year-old with autism and mental health conditions, his mother said. Lorenzo was twice found incompetent to stand trial, meaning he couldn’t be prosecuted because a judge found he didn’t understand the gravity of the charges or the potential penalties.

The targeting was sometimes taking place as troubled teenagers worked to get their lives back on track.

Matthew Lott was put on the prolific offender list at 14. He was arrested at least six times in 2016 and 2017, mostly for breaking into unoccupied homes and cars. Deputies checked on him constantly, his mother recalled, sometimes interrupting family movie nights.

But by 2018, after several months at a residential program for at-risk kids outside of Orlando, Matthew started to turn his life around. He returned to Pasco, earned his GED, got a maintenance job at his church and stayed out of trouble, records show.

Still, deputies showed up at his door. They came one evening that September, when he was supposed to be resting after having his tonsils removed. They came again in October.

“He’s still labeled in our system as a prolific offender, which means he’s going to keep getting checked on,” a deputy told his mom, according to video of the encounter.

Three of Matthew’s close friends said he was afraid the department would find a reason to send him back to jail.

Six weeks after the October visit, Matthew’s body was found behind a vacant building on U.S. 19. His death was ruled a suicide by prescription drug overdose. He had left a short note on his laptop, apologizing and thanking his family and friends.

Matthew’s mother said she wasn’t sure why Matthew took his life. Experts say suicide rarely has a single cause. But two psychologists and a social worker who were not involved in Matthew’s case said the way the deputies treated him could put tremendous psychological pressure on any young person and contribute to a feeling of hopelessness.

Officials at the Department of Juvenile Justice knew Matthew was struggling. They noted in his file at least seven times that he had been cutting himself or had suicidal thoughts.

The Sheriff’s Office acknowledged it had access to a portion of the file that labeled Matthew at risk of suicide. But the department said it would be irresponsible to blame Matthew’s death on its program. It said the program is based on crime data alone, and Matthew qualified.

“Despite our best effort with providing resources, Mr. Lott continued to offend,” the agency said.

Asked what resources it provided, the Sheriff’s Office said it gave Matthew a copy of the resource card, listing 20 other organizations he could turn to for help.

Targeted

Over the past five years, nearly 1,000 Pasco County residents have been swept up in the Pasco Sheriff’s Office’s data-driven policing program. The program aims to use analytics to identify people who the department thinks are most likely to commit future crimes.

Deputies create a list and “check on” anyone whose name appears. They knock on doors at all hours of the day and night. They look for reasons to write code enforcement citations or arrest the targets and their friends and family.

“We’re bothering criminals,” Sheriff Chris Nocco said in 2011. “That’s what we do.”

At least 1 in 10 of the program’s targets have been 17 years old or younger. Some had been arrested only once or twice. And the people deputies are bothering are often friends and family members.

Many of the interactions were captured on body-camera footage, obtained by the Tampa Bay Times through public records requests. Here’s what the video shows.

In 2019, 15-year-old Rio Wojtecki was labeled a “Top 5” criminal — a category intended for key players in criminal networks. Deputies started checking on him around the clock.

Rio and his family didn’t understand why. Even the deputies conceded he only had one charge on his record, from when he and some friends stole two motorized bikes. He already had a probation officer checking on him for that.

The deputies told him to stop hanging out with his “bad” friends. The department has told the Times that Rio was in a gang. Rio says he was not.

In 2019, 15-year-old Rio Wojtecki was labeled a “Top 5” criminal — a category intended for key players in criminal networks. Deputies started checking on him around the clock.

Rio and his family didn’t understand why. Even the deputies conceded he only had one charge on his record, from when he and some friends stole two motorized bikes. He already had a probation officer checking on him for that.

The deputies told him to stop hanging out with his “bad” friends. The department has told the Times that Rio was in a gang. Rio says he was not.

When Rio was doing homework at his mother’s office in September 2019, the deputies hassled two of his sisters, who were 19 and 22 at the time. They threatened to write unrelated code citation fines unless the sisters let the deputies search the house for Rio.

Deputies also visited the car dealership where Rio’s mom worked. They even checked his gym. During the coronavirus pandemic, deputies continued to visit and question Rio.

When Sheila Smith’s son began getting into trouble, she sent him to another county to live with his grandmother, hoping to get him away from bad influences. The Sheriff’s Office signed off on the arrangement, she said. But deputies started visiting her and her husband, anyway, asking to check on their son.

In 2019, 15-year-old Rio Wojtecki was labeled a “Top 5” criminal — a category intended for key players in criminal networks. Deputies started checking on him around the clock.

Rio and his family didn’t understand why. Even the deputies conceded he only had one charge on his record, from when he and some friends stole two motorized bikes. He already had a probation officer checking on him for that.

The deputies told him to stop hanging out with his “bad” friends. The department has told the Times that Rio was in a gang. Rio says he was not.

When Rio was doing homework at his mother’s office in September 2019, the deputies hassled two of his sisters, who were 19 and 22 at the time. They threatened to write unrelated code citation fines unless the sisters let the deputies search the house for Rio.

Deputies also visited the car dealership where Rio’s mom worked. They even checked his gym. During the coronavirus pandemic, deputies continued to visit and question Rio.

When Sheila Smith’s son began getting into trouble, she sent him to another county to live with his grandmother, hoping to get him away from bad influences. The Sheriff’s Office signed off on the arrangement, she said. But deputies started visiting her and her husband, anyway, asking to check on their son.

Each time, Smith calmly explained that her son had moved away.

They came again after that, department records show. Smith said there were more checks that weren’t recorded. Once, deputies handcuffed Smith’s husband and put him in the back of their squad car. After some time, they released him. They said they mistook him for his brother.

Families who did not react so patiently could face life-changing consequences.

After multiple visits and more than $2,500 in code enforcement citations, Tammy Heilman told a deputy asking about her son — one of the program’s targets — to call her attorney. Late for her 7-year-old daughter’s Girl Scout meeting, she drove away in a rush. The deputy yelled that they weren’t wearing seat belts. He followed her down the block, pulled her over and arrested her.

Heilman was charged with resisting arrest and battery on an officer. She also was charged with providing false information about her son. Deputies told her family that she was arrested for driving away with the seatbelt violation. On the ride to jail, a deputy said she was arrested because she didn’t stop to speak with him.

Heilman was released on bail. But two years later, while Heilman was fighting the charges in court, the deputies were back at her house.

They charged her with felony battery on a law enforcement officer for hitting the deputy with the screen door. Because she was on probation for the previous arrest, she was ineligible for bail. She stayed in jail for 76 days before finally agreeing to a plea deal so she could be home for Christmas.

In 2019, 15-year-old Rio Wojtecki was labeled a “Top 5” criminal — a category intended for key players in criminal networks. Deputies started checking on him around the clock.

Rio and his family didn’t understand why. Even the deputies conceded he only had one charge on his record, from when he and some friends stole two motorized bikes. He already had a probation officer checking on him for that.

The deputies told him to stop hanging out with his “bad” friends. The department has told the Times that Rio was in a gang. Rio says he was not.

When Rio was doing homework at his mother’s office in September 2019, the deputies hassled two of his sisters, who were 19 and 22 at the time. They threatened to write unrelated code citation fines unless the sisters let the deputies search the house for Rio.

Deputies also visited the car dealership where Rio’s mom worked. They even checked his gym. During the coronavirus pandemic, deputies continued to visit and question Rio.

When Sheila Smith’s son began getting into trouble, she sent him to another county to live with his grandmother, hoping to get him away from bad influences. The Sheriff’s Office signed off on the arrangement, she said. But deputies started visiting her and her husband, anyway, asking to check on their son.

Each time, Smith calmly explained that her son had moved away.

They came again after that, department records show. Smith said there were more checks that weren’t recorded. Once, deputies handcuffed Smith’s husband and put him in the back of their squad car. After some time, they released him. They said they mistook him for his brother.

Families who did not react so patiently could face life-changing consequences.

After multiple visits and more than $2,500 in code enforcement citations, Tammy Heilman told a deputy asking about her son — one of the program’s targets — to call her attorney. Late for her 7-year-old daughter’s Girl Scout meeting, she drove away in a rush. The deputy yelled that they weren’t wearing seat belts. He followed her down the block, pulled her over and arrested her.

Heilman was charged with resisting arrest and battery on an officer. She also was charged with providing false information about her son. Deputies told her family that she was arrested for driving away with the seatbelt violation. On the ride to jail, a deputy said she was arrested because she didn’t stop to speak with him.

Heilman was released on bail. But two years later, while Heilman was fighting the charges in court, the deputies were back at her house.

They charged her with felony battery on a law enforcement officer for hitting the deputy with the screen door. Because she was on probation for the previous arrest, she was ineligible for bail. She stayed in jail for 76 days before finally agreeing to a plea deal so she could be home for Christmas.

Deputies asked to speak with Michelle Dotson’s developmentally disabled grandson, Da’Marion, about a car theft. She asked them to leave and contact his attorney, she said. They waited on the street and when the teenager came outside for school, a deputy stepped toward him. Dotson grabbed her grandson by the wrist. The Sheriff’s Office didn’t provide footage of this part of the encounter, but the police report said Dotson grabbed a deputy and refused to let go. She denies it.

In 2019, 15-year-old Rio Wojtecki was labeled a “Top 5” criminal — a category intended for key players in criminal networks. Deputies started checking on him around the clock.

Rio and his family didn’t understand why. Even the deputies conceded he only had one charge on his record, from when he and some friends stole two motorized bikes. He already had a probation officer checking on him for that.

The deputies told him to stop hanging out with his “bad” friends. The department has told the Times that Rio was in a gang. Rio says he was not.

When Rio was doing homework at his mother’s office in September 2019, the deputies hassled two of his sisters, who were 19 and 22 at the time. They threatened to write unrelated code citation fines unless the sisters let the deputies search the house for Rio.

Deputies also visited the car dealership where Rio’s mom worked. They even checked his gym. During the coronavirus pandemic, deputies continued to visit and question Rio.

When Sheila Smith’s son began getting into trouble, she sent him to another county to live with his grandmother, hoping to get him away from bad influences. The Sheriff’s Office signed off on the arrangement, she said. But deputies started visiting her and her husband, anyway, asking to check on their son.

Each time, Smith calmly explained that her son had moved away.

They came again after that, department records show. Smith said there were more checks that weren’t recorded. Once, deputies handcuffed Smith’s husband and put him in the back of their squad car. After some time, they released him. They said they mistook him for his brother.

Families who did not react so patiently could face life-changing consequences.

After multiple visits and more than $2,500 in code enforcement citations, Tammy Heilman told a deputy asking about her son — one of the program’s targets — to call her attorney. Late for her 7-year-old daughter’s Girl Scout meeting, she drove away in a rush. The deputy yelled that they weren’t wearing seat belts. He followed her down the block, pulled her over and arrested her.

Heilman was charged with resisting arrest and battery on an officer. She also was charged with providing false information about her son. Deputies told her family that she was arrested for driving away with the seatbelt violation. On the ride to jail, a deputy said she was arrested because she didn’t stop to speak with him.

Heilman was released on bail. But two years later, while Heilman was fighting the charges in court, the deputies were back at her house.

They charged her with felony battery on a law enforcement officer for hitting the deputy with the screen door. Because she was on probation for the previous arrest, she was ineligible for bail. She stayed in jail for 76 days before finally agreeing to a plea deal so she could be home for Christmas.

Deputies asked to speak with Michelle Dotson’s developmentally disabled grandson, Da’Marion, about a car theft. She asked them to leave and contact his attorney, she said. They waited on the street and when the teenager came outside for school, a deputy stepped toward him. Dotson grabbed her grandson by the wrist. The Sheriff’s Office didn’t provide footage of this part of the encounter, but the police report said Dotson grabbed a deputy and refused to let go. She denies it.

Deputies arrested Dotson and two other family members who tried to help. One was a 20-year-old relative, who tried to move a decorative vase out of the way. Deputies said they were worried the woman was going to attack them with the vase. The other was Dotson’s son, who deputies said tried pulling them off her. None of them had been arrested before, they said. They all deny the allegations.

In 2019, 15-year-old Rio Wojtecki was labeled a “Top 5” criminal — a category intended for key players in criminal networks. Deputies started checking on him around the clock.

Rio and his family didn’t understand why. Even the deputies conceded he only had one charge on his record, from when he and some friends stole two motorized bikes. He already had a probation officer checking on him for that.

The deputies told him to stop hanging out with his “bad” friends. The department has told the Times that Rio was in a gang. Rio says he was not.

When Rio was doing homework at his mother’s office in September 2019, the deputies hassled two of his sisters, who were 19 and 22 at the time. They threatened to write unrelated code citation fines unless the sisters let the deputies search the house for Rio.

Deputies also visited the car dealership where Rio’s mom worked. They even checked his gym. During the coronavirus pandemic, deputies continued to visit and question Rio.

When Sheila Smith’s son began getting into trouble, she sent him to another county to live with his grandmother, hoping to get him away from bad influences. The Sheriff’s Office signed off on the arrangement, she said. But deputies started visiting her and her husband, anyway, asking to check on their son.

Each time, Smith calmly explained that her son had moved away.

They came again after that, department records show. Smith said there were more checks that weren’t recorded. Once, deputies handcuffed Smith’s husband and put him in the back of their squad car. After some time, they released him. They said they mistook him for his brother.

Families who did not react so patiently could face life-changing consequences.

After multiple visits and more than $2,500 in code enforcement citations, Tammy Heilman told a deputy asking about her son — one of the program’s targets — to call her attorney. Late for her 7-year-old daughter’s Girl Scout meeting, she drove away in a rush. The deputy yelled that they weren’t wearing seat belts. He followed her down the block, pulled her over and arrested her.

Heilman was charged with resisting arrest and battery on an officer. She also was charged with providing false information about her son. Deputies told her family that she was arrested for driving away with the seatbelt violation. On the ride to jail, a deputy said she was arrested because she didn’t stop to speak with him.

Heilman was released on bail. But two years later, while Heilman was fighting the charges in court, the deputies were back at her house.

They charged her with felony battery on a law enforcement officer for hitting the deputy with the screen door. Because she was on probation for the previous arrest, she was ineligible for bail. She stayed in jail for 76 days before finally agreeing to a plea deal so she could be home for Christmas.

Deputies asked to speak with Michelle Dotson’s developmentally disabled grandson, Da’Marion, about a car theft. She asked them to leave and contact his attorney, she said. They waited on the street and when the teenager came outside for school, a deputy stepped toward him. Dotson grabbed her grandson by the wrist. The Sheriff’s Office didn’t provide footage of this part of the encounter, but the police report said Dotson grabbed a deputy and refused to let go. She denies it.

Deputies arrested Dotson and two other family members who tried to help. One was a 20-year-old relative, who tried to move a decorative vase out of the way. Deputies said they were worried the woman was going to attack them with the vase. The other was Dotson’s son, who deputies said tried pulling them off her. None of them had been arrested before, they said. They all deny the allegations.

Multiple deputies detained Da’Marion, even as Dotson explained that he is sensitive to touch. The teenager had a meltdown.

In 2019, 15-year-old Rio Wojtecki was labeled a “Top 5” criminal — a category intended for key players in criminal networks. Deputies started checking on him around the clock.

Rio and his family didn’t understand why. Even the deputies conceded he only had one charge on his record, from when he and some friends stole two motorized bikes. He already had a probation officer checking on him for that.

The deputies told him to stop hanging out with his “bad” friends. The department has told the Times that Rio was in a gang. Rio says he was not.

When Rio was doing homework at his mother’s office in September 2019, the deputies hassled two of his sisters, who were 19 and 22 at the time. They threatened to write unrelated code citation fines unless the sisters let the deputies search the house for Rio.

Deputies also visited the car dealership where Rio’s mom worked. They even checked his gym. During the coronavirus pandemic, deputies continued to visit and question Rio.

When Sheila Smith’s son began getting into trouble, she sent him to another county to live with his grandmother, hoping to get him away from bad influences. The Sheriff’s Office signed off on the arrangement, she said. But deputies started visiting her and her husband, anyway, asking to check on their son.

Each time, Smith calmly explained that her son had moved away.

They came again after that, department records show. Smith said there were more checks that weren’t recorded. Once, deputies handcuffed Smith’s husband and put him in the back of their squad car. After some time, they released him. They said they mistook him for his brother.

Families who did not react so patiently could face life-changing consequences.

After multiple visits and more than $2,500 in code enforcement citations, Tammy Heilman told a deputy asking about her son — one of the program’s targets — to call her attorney. Late for her 7-year-old daughter’s Girl Scout meeting, she drove away in a rush. The deputy yelled that they weren’t wearing seat belts. He followed her down the block, pulled her over and arrested her.

Heilman was charged with resisting arrest and battery on an officer. She also was charged with providing false information about her son. Deputies told her family that she was arrested for driving away with the seatbelt violation. On the ride to jail, a deputy said she was arrested because she didn’t stop to speak with him.

Heilman was released on bail. But two years later, while Heilman was fighting the charges in court, the deputies were back at her house.

They charged her with felony battery on a law enforcement officer for hitting the deputy with the screen door. Because she was on probation for the previous arrest, she was ineligible for bail. She stayed in jail for 76 days before finally agreeing to a plea deal so she could be home for Christmas.

Deputies asked to speak with Michelle Dotson’s developmentally disabled grandson, Da’Marion, about a car theft. She asked them to leave and contact his attorney, she said. They waited on the street and when the teenager came outside for school, a deputy stepped toward him. Dotson grabbed her grandson by the wrist. The Sheriff’s Office didn’t provide footage of this part of the encounter, but the police report said Dotson grabbed a deputy and refused to let go. She denies it.

Deputies arrested Dotson and two other family members who tried to help. One was a 20-year-old relative, who tried to move a decorative vase out of the way. Deputies said they were worried the woman was going to attack them with the vase. The other was Dotson’s son, who deputies said tried pulling them off her. None of them had been arrested before, they said. They all deny the allegations.

Multiple deputies detained Da’Marion, even as Dotson explained that he is sensitive to touch. The teenager had a meltdown.

The Sheriff’s Office called an ambulance for Da’Marion and had him taken for a psychiatric evaluation under Florida’s Baker Act. He was later arrested on auto theft charges.

Months later, Dotson still feels unsafe. “Everywhere we go, they follow us around,” she said. “They sit here on the corner in unmarked cars like we don’t know their faces.”

In the last five years, Pasco County sheriff’s deputies checked on people on the list and their families more than 12,500 times.

How a Florida Sheriff harasses families: Watch the body-cam video

We are aware of a recent report by a media outlet in the Tampa Bay area that attempts to paint our Intelligence-Led Policing philosophy in a negative light.

While the media outlet was provided over 30 pages of factual information to disprove their theory of so-called “harassment”, it was extremely disappointing to see this fact-based information take a backseat to supposed “reliable sources”, who have lengthy criminal histories, or who are former members of the Pasco Sheriff’s Office that were held accountable for their actions.


For example, the “reliable sources” named in this report who were held accountable for their actions by the Pasco Sheriff’s Office engaged in conduct such as:

  • One “reliable source” quoted by the article, leading up to their resignation from the agency, was under investigation for engaging in sexual relations with a confidential informant

  • One “reliable source” quoted by the article had numerous, documented accounts of insubordination and failing to follow proper policies and procedures of the Pasco Sheriff’s Office

  • One “reliable source” quoted by the article abandoned an extra duty detail without permission and went to a female subordinate’s personal residence while she was off duty without invitation

Sadly, one of these supposed “reliable sources” admitted in the article that he did not follow proper policies and procedures by not documenting prolific offender checks, though we are unable to verify this information. This failure to follow policy and procedure is exactly why the “reliable source” is no longer with the Pasco Sheriff’s Office, along with several other policy violations.

It is dismaying to see the media demand accountability in law enforcement, something the Pasco Sheriff’s Office wholly supports and endorses as evidenced by our use of Body Worn Cameras as a small example, only to then use those who were held accountable as “reliable sources” with no consideration of their past actions or what led them to be held accountable. 


Let us be abundantly clear, the Intelligence-Led Policing philosophy works and has worked around the Tampa Bay area, as the same philosophy is used by numerous law enforcement agencies. It works because it reduced residential burglaries in Pasco County by 74.4% since it was implemented in 2011 and it works because property crimes are down 35.6% in that same time period. In fact, ILP was started in England in the 1990s and is hardly a new phenomenon or approach to law enforcement.

Contrary to the report, ILP is not a futuristic, predictive model where people are arrested for crimes they have not yet committed. Instead, the system is based SOLELY on an individual’s criminal history. Multiple studies have shown that 6% of the population commit 60% of the crime and that is what this model focuses on.

Let us, again, be profusely clear that this model is based SOLELY on an individual’s criminal history. It is nameless, faceless, ageless, genderless and removes ALL identifying factors of an individual, EXCEPT for their criminal history. This philosophy removes any chance of bias in law enforcement, which is something that should be celebrated.


For example, an individual who was arrested 15 times in the last three years is more likely to commit an additional crime, as evidenced by a documented propensity for committing crime, than someone who has never been arrested. As such, the Pasco Sheriff’s Office visits and provides resources to the person who was arrested 15 times to attempt to break the cycle of recidivism and better protect our community from crime.


This is not a judgment on an individual with a criminal history but, instead, a fact that cannot be ignored as we attempt to positively impact the criminal environment in Pasco County and keep our community safe.

That is what the ILP philosophy is, not a futuristic, crime predictive tool that arrests an individual for crimes not yet committed, despite the media report’s best assertion that the theory was taken straight out of fictional Hollywood movies like “Minority Report.”

Additionally, this media outlet appears to labor under the notion that both our ILP Analysts and STAR deputies exist exclusively to coordinate aspects of the Top 5 lists and Prolific Offender lists. In reality, these aspects are but a small subset of each parties’ job functions. As was provided to this outlet numerous times, ILP analysts work on nearly every case the Pasco Sheriff’s Office investigates, with the underlying, yet ever-present, goal of bettering the lives of the citizens of Pasco County through the reduction of crime. This includes cases such as the recovery of missing individuals and drug arrests leading to 435,000 lethal doses of fentanyl being removed from Pasco’s streets. Furthermore, STAR deputies are integral components of the search and successful safe recovery of missing Pasco children, both in and out of our county, among other daily activities wholly unrelated to making contact with prolific offenders.

We continue to be open and transparent with our community and those that we serve, which is why we want to ensure you, our citizens, had this information.


It is sad that there are media outlets attempting to drive division between a community and law enforcement by relying on previous employees who were held accountable for their actions as well as individuals with lengthy criminal histories and ignoring the more than 30 pages of well-researched facts that the Pasco Sheriff’s Office provided. 


It is also sad that this same media outlet refuses to report on the good work of our Behavioral Health Intervention Team and the fact that our men and women recently took 435,000 lethal doses of fentanyl off of Pasco’s streets. This is selection bias at its worst and the reason we connect with our community directly on social media.

We stand with our community and we are deeply grateful that you continue to stand with us.

As we told the media outlet, we will not apologize for continuing to keep our community safe.

Thank you for your continued support.

Pasco Sheriff's Office Response

The county's Intelligence Led Policing sounds like an Orwellian nightmare.

You live in Pasco County and have one or two run-ins with the Sheriff’s Office on your record. Maybe it wasn’t a major crime, but that doesn’t matter. It’s late, and you’re headed to bed, when … BAM! BAM!

Someone is pounding on the door, and without looking, you know who it is because they’ve been there many times before. Pasco County deputies are just checking to see what you’re doing.

They know where you live and want you to remember that. They are always watching.

This sounds like an Orwellian nightmare. According to a scalding Tampa Bay Times investigative report, though, it’s a reality for those caught in the net of the Intelligence-Led Policing program incorporated by Sheriff Chris Nocco. It’s designed to identify people likely to commit a crime.

The concept is not new. Police departments in several cities around the country use computer models to predict where crimes might occur and who the guilty parties might be. In 2001, Tampa posted three dozen facial recognition cameras in Ybor City but took them down a couple of years later after no results.

Cameras have been used in Super Bowl host cities, including Tampa, to monitor possible terrorists.

And Tampa Mayor Jane Castor admitted a program that targeted Black bicyclists when she was the city’s Police Chief was wrong.

That said, the Pasco program, according to the Times report, takes this idea to a different level. After the computer identifies people to target, deputies take it from there.

“They swarm homes in the middle of the night, waking families and embarrassing people in front of their neighbors,” the Times reported. “They write tickets for missing mailbox numbers and overgrown grass, saddling residents with court dates and fines.”

And, the Times concluded, “They come again and again, making arrests for any reason they can.”

One former deputy described the directive like this to the Times: “Make their lives miserable until they move or sue.”

The Times had bodycam footage of some of the interactions. Imagine this happening at your house.

The Sheriff’s response is that the ends justify the means.

“We again would like to reiterate our firm stance that Intelligence-Led Policing has worked to reduce property crimes in Pasco County and continues to work in agencies in our area that also use this model such as Hillsborough County,” the Office said in a lengthy retort.

“This reduction in property crimes includes a 74.4% reduction in residential burglaries and a 20.7% reduction in auto thefts, along with an overall reduction of property crimes of 35.6%.”

That data was from 2011 when Nocco became Sheriff through 2019.

From dispatch logs, the Times reported deputies executed more than 12,500 of these “visits” since 2015. And about 10% of those trips were aimed at individuals under 18. To be fair, Nocco is popular with most Pasco residents. Supporters believe he is doing what he must to protect them.

But harassment on this scale as a police tactic goes over the line. Deputies don’t bring warrants and don’t have probable cause. They just show up, repeatedly.

I’m not a lawyer, but an argument can be made this violates the Fourth Amendment.

It states, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated …”

Pasco has moved to the edge of unreasonable, and maybe a step or two over.

Joe Henderson: Do Pasco Sheriff’s Office surveillance tactics go over the line?

Office says it's using data, not reading tea leaves.

The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office is pushing back against a recent Tampa Bay Times report that casts its “Intelligence-Led Policing” model as a bludgeon used to harass residents.

The Times report says the ILP system implemented by Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco employs “arrest histories, unspecified intelligence and arbitrary decisions by police analysts” to single out and pick on Pasco County residents.

But the Sheriff’s Office says the Times went one for three on the input and struck out entirely on how the department uses the output.

The Sheriff’s Office says Times is conflating Intelligence-Led Policing, a decades old method used by law enforcement agencies across the globe, with “Predictive Policing,” a term for guessing what crimes will be committed and by whom.

Some law enforcement agencies have experimented with Predictive Policing, but the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office says it does not — and has not. ILP, it says, is an entirely different method.

“Contrary to the report, ILP is not a futuristic, predictive model where people are arrested for crimes they have not yet committed. Instead, the system is based SOLELY on an individual’s criminal history. Multiple studies have shown that 6% of the population commit 60% of the crime and that is what this model focuses on,” the office wrote in a lengthy rebuttal posted on its Facebook page.

“Let us, again, be profusely clear that this model is based SOLELY on an individual’s criminal history. It is nameless, faceless, ageless, genderless and removes ALL identifying factors of an individual, EXCEPT for their criminal history. This philosophy removes any chance of bias in law enforcement, which is something that should be celebrated.”

The Sheriff’s Office also takes issue with other aspects of the article, namely the ex-officers who spoke with the Times.

All resigned or were dismissed for cause, the office says.

One was under investigation for engaging in sexual relations with a confidential informant; another had numerous, documented accounts of insubordination and failing to follow proper policies and procedures; and a third abandoned an extra duty detail without permission and went to a female subordinate’s personal residence while she was off duty without invitation.

But the Sheriff’s Office took particular umbrage with the Times insinuations of racial bias.

As highlighted in a recent report from WTSP, the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office is the most diverse in the Tampa Bay region and among the most diverse in the state. WTSP found nearly one in four full-time officers at the Pasco Sheriff’s Office are Black — more than double the statewide average of 11%.

Pasco Sheriff’s Office pushes back against allegations of harassment, targeting

The Pasco Sheriff’s Office keeps a secret list of kids it thinks could “fall into a life of crime” based on factors like whether they’ve been abused or gotten a D or an F in school, according to the agency's internal intelligence manual.

The Sheriff’s Office assembles the list by combining the rosters for most middle and high schools in the county with records so sensitive, they’re protected by state and federal law.

School district data shows which children are struggling academically, miss too many classes or are sent to the office for discipline. Records from the state Department of Children and Families flag kids who have witnessed household violence or experienced it themselves.

According to the manual, any one of those factors makes a child more likely to become a criminal.

Four hundred and twenty kids are on the list, the Sheriff’s Office said.

The process largely plays out in secret. The Sheriff’s Office doesn’t tell the kids or their parents about the designation. In an interview, schools superintendent Kurt Browning said he was unaware the Sheriff’s Office was using school data to identify kids who might become criminals. So were the principals of two high schools.

The Department of Children and Families didn’t answer when asked if it knew its data was being fed into such a system.

Sheriff Chris Nocco declined requests to be interviewed, and his agency did not make anyone from its intelligence-led policing or school resource divisions available for comment.

In a series of written statements, the Sheriff’s Office said the list is used only to help the deputies assigned to middle and high schools offer “mentorship” and “resources” to students.

Asked for specifics, it pointed to one program where school resource officers take children fishing and another where they give clothes to kids in need.

Ten experts in law enforcement and student privacy questioned the justification for combing through thousands of students’ education and child-welfare records.

They called the program highly unusual. Many said it was a clear misuse of children’s confidential information that stretched the limits of the law.

“Can you imagine having your kid in that county and they might be on a list that says they may become a criminal?” said Linnette Attai, a consultant who helps companies and schools comply with student privacy laws.

“And you have no way of finding out if they are on that list?”

The Sheriff’s Office said its data sharing practices with the school district date back 20 years and are crucial to keeping campuses safe.

It added that only a juvenile intelligence analyst and the school resource officers have access to the list and the underlying data.

The agency also objected to the characterization of the list as potential future criminals, saying it was also designed to identify students at risk for victimization, truancy, self-harm and substance abuse.

But the intelligence manual — an 82-page document that school resource officers and other deputies are required to read — doesn’t mention those other risks. Instead, in five separate places, it describes efforts to pinpoint kids who are likely to become criminals.

The office could not provide any documents instructing school resource officers to interpret the list another way.

The list of school kids isn’t the agency’s only effort to identify and target people it considers likely to commit crimes. In September, a Tampa Bay Times investigation revealed that the department’s intelligence arm also uses people’s criminal histories and social networks to predict if they will break the law.

The Sheriff’s Office pursues those people even when there’s no evidence of a new crime. Former deputies told the Times they were ordered to harass people on the target list by visiting their homes repeatedly and looking for reasons to write tickets and make arrests. One in 10 of the people targeted have been teenagers.

The ways the agency has extended its intelligence effort into mining education and child-welfare records have not previously been reported.

Because the children themselves don’t know if they’ve been flagged, it is difficult to say how it affects interactions between students and school resource officers or other deputies. The Sheriff’s Office declined to release a copy of its list of students to the Times.

When a reporter described the effort to Browning, he said he did not find it concerning.

“We have an agreement with the Sheriff’s Office,” the superintendent said. “The agreement requires them to use (the data) for official law enforcement purposes. I have to assume that’s exactly what they are using it for.”

Later, in a written statement, he added: “If there is any need to revisit any aspect of our relationship, we will do so in a thoughtful manner with the goal of keeping our students and staff safe.”

Two members of the Pasco School Board, Megan Harding and Alison Crumbley, described the district’s relationship with the Sheriff’s Office as strong and referenced safeguards to protect students’ privacy. The agreement between the two institutions says the Sheriff’s Office must keep the records confidential and use them in legal ways.

The three other School Board members did not return calls or declined to comment.

Experts said having school resource officers single out children could be harmful, especially if the kids were struggling at home or in school, or if they didn’t trust police.

They also said the effort was based on flawed science and likely biased against children of color and children with disabilities.

“It is a recipe for violating people’s rights and civil liberties,” said Harold Jordan, a senior policy advocate for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.

Elsewhere in the country, scandals have erupted when law enforcement agencies were found to have access to children’s private data, said Andrew Guthrie Ferguson, a law professor at American University and national expert in predictive policing.

Sensitive information about kids, Ferguson said, should remain “in the hands of people who can offer help.”

“Police are not in the business of offering help to juveniles,” he said. “They are in the business of policing.”

BAD GRADES AND CHILDHOOD TRAUMA

In its intelligence manual, the Pasco Sheriff’s Office says most police departments have no way of knowing if kids have “low intelligence” or come from “broken homes” — factors that can predict whether they’ll break the law.

“Fortunately,” it continues, “these records are available to us.”

The manual says the Sheriff’s Office has access to the information through partnerships with the Pasco school district and the state Department of Children and Families.

The district pays the sheriff $2.3 million annually to place 32 deputies in middle and high schools. It also provides access to its Early Warning System, which tracks all students’ grades, attendance and behavior.

Separately, the Department of Children and Families allows law enforcement agencies across Florida to use to its child welfare database so they can investigate child abuse and find missing children. The database, known as the Florida Safe Families Network, contains detailed case notes and kids’ abuse histories.

The Sheriff’s Office has its own records, too, which indicate if children have been the subject of custody disputes, have run away from home, have violated the county’s curfew for young people or have been caught with drugs or alcohol. The office also keeps track of who is friends with whom.

It feeds information from all three datasets into a system that scores kids in 16 different categories. In each, children are assigned one of four labels: on track, at risk, off track or critical.

It doesn’t take much to be designated “at risk.”

Getting a D on your report card is enough, the manual says. So is missing school three or more times in a quarter.

Kids are also labeled “at risk” if they’ve experienced a childhood trauma. That includes witnessing household violence, being the victim of abuse or neglect, or having a parent go to prison.

Internal emails show the list was last updated in October for the new school year.

The agency said it only looks at data in schools where it provides school resource officers — the vast majority of the district’s middle and high schools. In total, those schools have more than 30,000 students.

Elementary schools have armed security guards and are not included, the agency said.

The Sheriff’s Office has been identifying and monitoring at-risk children as part of its intelligence operation since at least 2011, when Nocco first became sheriff.

That summer, school resource officers made hundreds of home visits to at-risk kids, according to news reports. They offered support to the children and their families, they told reporters at the time. But they also questioned them about local crimes and arrested kids who violated probation or curfew orders.

In one of its statements to the Times, the Sheriff’s Office said it looks for alternatives to arrest “when possible” and that supporting struggling kids is an important part of any school resource officer’s job.

Internal documents, however, show that those officers do more than mentor.

The intelligence manual encourages them to work their relationships with students to find “the seeds of criminal activity” and to collect information that can help with investigations.

“Often SROs will hear about past, present or future crimes well before others in the law enforcement community,” the manual says.

One school resource officer’s annual performance review, obtained by the Times through a public records request, noted he contributed to intelligence briefings. It also praised him for filing nearly two dozen “field interview reports” based on interactions with at-risk kids.

A ‘CIRCULAR EFFECT’

Law enforcement and privacy experts found many aspects of the Sheriff’s Office’s formula for identifying kids alarming.

Some metrics, they said, were completely outside of kids’ control. Others were likely biased.

Take school discipline.

In Pasco County, Black students and students with disabilities are twice as likely to be suspended or referred to law enforcement, according to federal data.

Bacardi Jackson, a senior supervising attorney for children’s rights for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said designating those kids as potential criminals could have a “circular effect.” They would likely receive even more attention from school resource officers and as a result, face additional discipline.

Leah Plunkett, an expert in digital privacy law and lecturer at Harvard Law School, said the program also appeared to be discriminatory.

Singling out kids based on whether they had been involved in custody disputes, for example, could be considered differential treatment based on family status, she said.

The Sheriff’s Office says its program is based on research. It points to a 2015 study that found young people who had experienced multiple childhood traumas were at a higher risk of becoming serious, violent criminals than those who hadn’t.

But David Kennedy, a renowned criminologist and professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice whose research is referenced in Pasco’s manual, said the associations between childhood trauma and criminal behavior are “extremely weak.” He said using them to make predictions about individuals “flies in the face of the science.”

The methodology used by the Sheriff’s Office, he added, was likely to generate a large pool of children, the vast majority of whom would never get in serious trouble.

“There’s nothing — absolutely nothing — that can be fed into even the most sophisticated algorithm or risk-assessment tool based on information available when someone is a child that can say this person is going to be a criminal later on, much less a serious prolific criminal,” he said.

LEGAL CONCERNS

After the Times started asking questions about the use of data to target young people, the Sheriff’s Office seems to have started revamping elements of its program.

Emails show the agency has been drafting a policy for how school resource officers should interact with at-risk students that focuses more on offering support and building positive relationships.

Even with those changes, experts questioned whether using student data this way was legal.

Under federal law, education records can only be released to outside parties in certain circumstances.

Law enforcement agencies can use the information to help thwart school shootings and offer support to students who are in the juvenile justice system. But in cases like those, experts said, they can only look at records relating to a specific student or situation.

“You can’t just give every student’s record out,” said LeRoy Rooker, who led the federal Department of Education’s oversight of student privacy for more than two decades.

The law does say school resource officers can access education records because they can be considered “school officials.” But under most circumstances, they can’t share the records with the rest of the department, said Amelia Vance, a member of the Maryland Department of Education’s Student Data Privacy Council who works for the nonprofit Future of Privacy Forum.

And they can’t use them in a law enforcement investigation without permission from a parent, unless there is a court order or a health and safety emergency, Vance said.

In its statement, the Sheriff’s Office said it had access to the data “lawfully” and noted that school resource officers receive annual training on the federal student privacy law.

The school district has recently been criticized for lax privacy practices. Last year, a state audit found that too many district employees had access to current and former students’ sensitive data, including social security numbers. The district later revoked privileges for 570 employees.

Attai, the student privacy consultant, said the school district should take action in this case, too, and reconsider its arrangement with the Sheriff’s Office.

“This is a district that is sending millions of dollars to the sheriff of Pasco County to target its students as criminals,” she said.

Pasco’s sheriff uses grades and abuse histories to label schoolchildren potential criminals

Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco was once asked under oath how he had landed two high-level posts in state government.

“It was the connections that I had made,” he said bluntly.

“I mean, you didn't have to like go and interview along with a hundred other people to get the job or anything?” an attorney pressed.

“No, ma’am,” he said.

Later that month, he told a reporter: “I’m very blessed to have friends that are in high offices.”

Today, Nocco himself is in a high place. A force in local GOP politics, he has twice been elected sheriff without opposition — something that hadn’t happened in Pasco County since World War II. His wife is one of the state’s most prominent Republican fundraisers. Their ties have reached the highest levels of government, including President Donald Trump’s administration.

Since becoming sheriff a decade ago, Nocco has used his connections and clout to grow the department and expand its reach.

He’s also taken the agency in directions that have appalled experienced cops and nationally recognized law enforcement experts.

A Tampa Bay Times investigation in September found that Nocco’s signature initiative — a sprawling intelligence program — uses an algorithm to identify people who might break the law, based on their criminal histories and social networks. The agency sends deputies to their homes, even if there is no evidence of a crime. Former deputies told the Times they had been ordered to make targets’ lives miserable.

The Times later revealed that the Sheriff’s Office starts trying to predict future criminals even earlier in life. It keeps a list of schoolchildren who might “fall into a life of crime” that’s built with data such as grades and child welfare records, agency documents show.

The department says the list currently includes more than 400 kids and is only used by school resource officers to provide support and “mentorship.” The kids and their parents are not made aware of the designation.

National experts who reviewed the programs for the Times called them “morally repugnant” and “everything that’s wrong about policing.” Some civil liberties groups — including the ACLU of Florida, Southern Poverty Law Center and Institute for Justice — are considering lawsuits and public advocacy campaigns. Tens of thousands of people have signed a petition demanding the school district stop sharing sensitive student data with the Sheriff’s Office.

Yet leaders in the Republican county and statehouse have been reluctant to weigh in. More than a dozen elected officials did not return phone calls or declined to be interviewed for this report.

Nocco became Pasco’s sheriff at 35, with eight years of law-enforcement experience. He set out to remake the agency: building an intelligence arm, hiring retired military officers and giving deputies a new and confrontational rallying cry, “We fight as one.”

The Sheriff’s Office takes pride in those efforts and touts its reliance on data, early adoption of body cameras, and recent work to address mental health and create a cutting-edge research institute as proof of its forward-thinking attitude.

But it has also faced criticism that its deputies have become too aggressive and its leadership too reliant on misapplied intelligence tactics.

Internally, the department has broken into open conflict. Some deputies have resisted the changes and been pushed out amid what they call retaliation. The schism has led to multiple lawsuits, including one that described agency leaders as “intoxicated with power” and willing to “physically abuse, intimidate, incarcerate, extort, and defame in order to ensure their absolute control.”

The Sheriff’s Office has denied the claims.

Nocco (pronounced knock-oh) declined to be interviewed for this story or any others related to the Times’ reporting on his intelligence programs. Instead, the Sheriff’s Office provided a copy of his biography and a 53-page report on how the agency has innovated during his tenure. Nine pages are devoted to intelligence programs. Seven highlight the agency’s partnership with the schools and its programs for kids.

“I am extremely proud of the bond we have created at the Pasco Sheriff's Office with our community over the last 10 years,” Nocco said in a statement. “This bond has allowed us to best serve our community, reducing crime as our population has grown rapidly and focusing on serving the needs of our community.”

In previous memos to the Times, the Sheriff’s Office has said it won’t back down from its intelligence strategies. It accused the news organization of “yellow journalism” and bias against law enforcement.

Even though sheriffs nationwide operate with vast autonomy and little oversight, Nocco stands out as particularly powerful.

His supporters say he’s a born leader whose humble attitude and natural charisma have made him popular among rank-and-file deputies and Pasco residents alike.

“People like him,” said longtime friend Mike Fasano, now the county tax collector. “It’s because of the way he comes across as a likeable person who cares about our community and keeping our community safe.”

Then, there are his connections.

He served as a top aide to Marco Rubio, now Florida’s senior U.S. senator.

His wife, Bridget, helped spearhead fundraising for Rick Scott, the state’s former governor and now its junior U.S. senator.

She’s been the finance director for one of the most important lobbying and public relations firms in the country. Her boss, Brian Ballard, has a long-standing relationship with the president. In 2018, Politico called Ballard the most powerful lobbyist in Trump’s Washington.

That proximity to the upper rungs of the Republican Party has made Nocco untouchable, said Bill Dumas, president of a local organization called Citizens Against Discrimination and Social Injustice.

“He does whatever he wants and there’s no arguing with him — or even sitting down and reasoning with him,” Dumas said.

A Political Star

In reliably Republican, pro-cop Pasco County, people know Chris Nocco.

He’s the plain-spoken, tough-on-crime lawman with a Philly accent. The former college football player and father of three who tweets Bible verses and motivational quotes.

He wears a patrolman’s uniform, not a suit and tie like some of his predecessors, and he drives the same type of car as his deputies, Fasano said.

Politicians running for office vie for his endorsement. He typically gets what he wants from the County Commission without a fight.

Nocco, 44, wasn’t always on the fast track. After earning his master’s in public administration from the University of Delaware, he spent the first few years of his career hopscotching from one police agency to another.

His first job, as a Delaware State Police trainee, lasted eight months. He resigned because a lieutenant made “derogatory” remarks about his family and faith, he said during a 2011 deposition.

His next stint, with the Philadelphia Public Schools Police, lasted six months.

He went to the Fairfax County Police Department in northern Virginia and stayed almost 3.5 years. Then he moved to Florida, following Bridget back to her home state, where she had a job opportunity.

He quit his next job, as a patrol deputy with the Broward Sheriff’s Office, after ten months. He said during the deposition that he didn’t want to work for Sheriff Ken Jenne, a powerful Democrat who would later plead guilty to fraud and tax evasion charges.

Nocco said he believed Jenne’s refusal to pay overtime for units like the SWAT team had put lives in danger. “Even as a patrol officer or deputy on the road, you knew he was just not a good sheriff to work for,” he said.

From there, Bridget helped him segue into politics. Just two months before the 2004 election, he became field director for Republican President George W. Bush’s campaign in Broward County. (The liberal county went overwhelmingly for Bush’s Democratic challenger, John Kerry.)

Nocco spent the next four years as an aide in the Florida House of Representatives, working his way up to deputy chief of staff for Rubio, who was then House speaker.

He forged close ties with many members of Pasco’s political class. That included Fasano, then an influential state senator; Rep. Will Weatherford, who would later ascend to House speaker; and Pasco Sheriff Bob White, who travelled to Tallahassee with the Florida Sheriffs Association.

Nocco’s immediate supervisor, Richard Corcoran, was also from Pasco and would later be elected to the House and serve as speaker. Corcoran is now state education commissioner.

As Rubio’s tenure in the state House was coming to an end, Nocco landed a $100,000-a-year civilian position with the Florida Highway Patrol.

Seven months later, White asked him to be a captain overseeing administrative areas for the Pasco Sheriff’s Office.

In a recent interview, White said he was looking for candidates with leadership potential. He described Nocco as tireless and intelligent. “He had no enemies in Pasco County,” White said. “He seemed like the right fit.”

Bridget’s career had also taken off. She had lobbied for powerful business interests, including HCA Healthcare and U.S. Sugar. And in 2010, she played a key role in the fundraising that helped land Scott, then an unknown businessman, in the governor’s mansion.

She did not return calls or emails from the Times.

In his statement, Nocco said: “I am very proud of my wife and the career she has built for herself.”

In the spring of 2011, White announced that he would be retiring before his term ended to spend more time with his family. As governor, Scott got to choose his replacement.

Some observers speculated White retired early so Republicans could handpick Pasco’s next sheriff. White told the Times that was just “a conspiracy.” Nocco has said he was unaware of White’s plans and came to Pasco because he missed being a sworn officer.

Regardless, just two years into his tenure at the Sheriff’s Office, Nocco was named the county’s top law enforcement officer.

Since then, his connections have continued paying off.

In 2012, Weatherford helped Nocco secure an additional $1 million in state funding for Pasco's child protective investigators while money for other counties stayed flat.

When Corcoran became speaker, he appointed Nocco to a high-profile board tasked with proposing updates to the state Constitution. Nocco used the post to introduce Marsy’s Law — a victim’s rights measure that police agencies, including his own, have employed to withhold the names of officers who use force.

His national profile only grew after 2016 when Ballard, already a powerful lobbyist in Florida, became influential in Washington.

This spring, Nocco was named to a 32-member panel that advises the secretary of Homeland Security on federal policy.

In July, he had a speaking role at a Trump re-election rally at Tampa International Airport that was carried on TV.

Ballard called Nocco a “political star.”

“Wherever he’s gone, he’s made friends, he’s served well and people think highly of him,” Ballard said.

Even after the Trump administration ends, Nocco will have powerful friends in Washington. Rubio is acting chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and sits on the Appropriations and Foreign Relations committees. Scott serves on the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

Both are considered 2024 presidential contenders.

'We Fight as One'

Sheriff Chris Nocco unveils Pasco County’s new SWAT vehicle in 2011. Times (2011)

Despite his limited experience in law enforcement, Nocco didn’t hesitate to reimagine the department after becoming sheriff.

The intelligence machine was just one piece of his vision.

He had the new motto — we fight as one — emblazoned outside headquarters, on police vehicles and on the patches on deputies’ uniforms.

He reshaped the command staff, making a series of hires with specialized military backgrounds, including a retired Army Special Forces colonel, a former Air Force intelligence analyst and a retired Navy captain who led SEAL teams and worked at U.S. Special Operations Command.

And he made a concerted push into code enforcement, doubling the number of tickets deputies gave for violations like overgrown grass, a Times analysis found.

The office also built a national following online. Today, it posts nearly every daylight hour, using a 26-page social media plan and hashtag glossary. The agency’s hundreds of thousands of followers get safety tips, cute dog pictures and nightly reminders to lock their homes at 9 p.m.

Some of the strategies have been more controversial. In 2016, the Sheriff’s Office made headlines for posting a photo of a man mid-arrest to its social media accounts under the heading “SAD CRIMINAL OF THE DAY.” Critics accused the department of ridiculing someone who had not been convicted of a crime and marginalizing people of color.

“This criminal is not different than any criminal we post about every single day,” a spokeswoman said of the man, who was photographed in tears as two deputies grabbed his dreadlocks. “He was a threat to the community before. It's important the community know he is in custody and no longer a threat to them.”

In 2017, Nocco allowed the agency to be featured on the popular A&E reality series Live PD. Some deputies became overnight celebrities. But like its predecessor COPS, the show was criticized for glorifying aggressive policing.

Pasco ended its run on Live PD in 2019 after two seasons. The show was cancelled this year amid civil unrest over police brutality.

Over time, the Sheriff’s Office has grown. Although the number of sworn law-enforcement officers has increased about 15 percent since Nocco took office, the agency’s budget has risen 65 percent, to $142 million. (The department says its per-citizen cost of $294 still pales in comparison to the nearby Hillsborough and Pinellas sheriff’s offices.)

Nocco says property crime has gone down. But the reduction — which his office credits to its intelligence efforts — is similar to the decline in the seven-largest nearby police jurisdictions. Violent crime has gone up only in Pasco.

For years, community activists have raised concerns about what they consider to be over-aggressive policing.

Most recently, in June, a 2014 incident in which deputies shot and killed an unarmed Black man received new scrutiny when the Times obtained body-camera footage that contradicted the agency’s justification for opening fire.

That same month, Marques Johnson, a hip-hop artist who performs under the name Andre Roxx and is Black, filed a federal lawsuit alleging deputies violated his civil and constitutional rights by arresting him without probable cause in 2018. A Live PD crew was in tow, according to the suit.

At the time of his arrest, Johnson was a passenger in a car driven by his father. Deputies stopped the vehicle because it had an obstructed license plate. When Johnson declined to identify himself, citing his Fourth Amendment rights, the deputies arrested him for resisting an officer and obstructing without violence. A judge later dropped the charge.

“The default approach at that agency is an aggressive, hostile approach,” said Johnson’s lawyer, Ryan Barack.

The Sheriff’s Office is seeking to have the suit dismissed. It has said that it determined the deputies acted appropriately.

Internally, deep divisions have opened up within the department.

In April 2019, two former deputies and a civilian manager sued Nocco in federal court, alleging they had faced retaliation after reporting misconduct. Since then, another 16 former deputies have sued with additional claims of corruption.

The department has fought the allegations publicly and accused the plaintiffs of protocol violations ranging from insubordination to having sexual relations with a confidential informant.

Some of the allegations and counter-allegations are near-impossible to unravel and cast both the plaintiffs and the Sheriff’s Office in a negative light.

But some are jarring, coming from high-ranking officials who left the agency.

Former Intelligence Led Policing Manager Anthony Pearn, who holds a doctorate and once worked for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, described in court papers a case in which agency leaders used the intelligence apparatus to try to arrest someone who posted a mugshot of a deputy on Facebook.

The Times reviewed the Internal Affairs investigation into the incident, which found that the intelligence arm looked into a woman — a known white supremacist — and her family after she posted an old booking mugshot and address of a deputy who had been featured on Live PD.

Agency leaders told Internal Affairs that they did subsequently target the woman and her family. But they said it was part of a separate drug investigation and called the timing coincidental. Internal Affairs determined there had been no wrongdoing.

Pearn declined to comment.

Former Capt. James Steffens, who Nocco wooed to the Sheriff’s Office from his previous post as New Port Richey police chief, said that he and most other command staff members were required to make big donations to the sheriff’s 2016 campaign: $1,000 in their own names and $1,000 in their spouses’.

The Sheriff’s Office said contributions were not mandatory. Campaign finance records from 2016 show that 13 out of 16 of Nocco’s captains, majors and colonels — including Steffens — gave $1,000, the maximum contribution in a countywide race. Many of their spouses also contributed $1,000. The pattern continued in 2020. In both years, Nocco was unopposed and gave the money he didn’t spend to charities or the Sheriff’s Office.

Steffens, a biracial Black man, also has a lawsuit against the department alleging he faced systemic racial discrimination at the agency. It claims Nocco forced Steffens’ resignation, then used the media to humiliate and defame him.

The agency has said that it accepted Steffens’ resignation over leadership lapses related to charges that one of his deputies tampered with evidence.

Declining to Comment

For years, Nocco has touted his intelligence operation at community meetings and in campaign materials.

But when the details of how it actually worked became public, national experts were stunned. Two academics who the Sheriff’s Office said helped develop the program each disclaimed any responsibility for it. Others likened the tactics to harassment, child abuse and policing that could be expected under an authoritarian regime.

Meanwhile, state and county leaders — virtually all Republicans — have avoided saying anything of substance about the program.

Pasco County Commissioner Jack Mariano said he hadn’t read the Times’ investigation but fully backed the Sheriff’s Office. Commissioner Ron Oakley said he also hadn’t read the investigation and declined to comment.

The three other people on the commission in September — Mike Moore, Kathryn Starkey and Mike Wells Jr. — didn’t return reporters’ calls.

Neither did Christina Fitzpatrick, who joined in November.

Nor did the state’s legislative leaders: Senate President Wilton Simpson, who represents parts of Pasco, and House Speaker Chris Sprowls, a former prosecutor in the judicial circuit that covers the county.

Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe also didn’t return calls.

Asked about deputies harassing some of his clients, outgoing Public Defender Bob Dillinger said none had mentioned it.

Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office said it does not oversee independently elected sheriffs but noted that the governor could assign the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to review the program. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement said it does not have oversight over local agencies. Gov. Ron DeSantis did not answer questions.

U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, who represents all of Pasco County, didn’t have time to read the Times’ investigation, his spokeswoman said in September. Asked again in December, he said in a statement that he “didn’t pretend to know enough about Pasco’s intelligence-led policing program.” He added that Nocco is “a good man and dedicated public servant.”

When the Times revealed the Sheriff’s Office uses confidential school-district data to identify kids at risk of becoming future criminals, schools Superintendent Kurt Browning called the sheriff “a great partner.” Two board members, elected in nonpartisan races, praised the district’s relationship with the Sheriff’s Office.

Browning — a Republican with a long history in state politics — later defended the school district’s practice of sharing its data with law enforcement, saying it helps keep schools safe. He didn’t address experts’ concerns that the arrangement could violate federal law, didn’t answer teachers’ questions about why the program was allowed to operate in secret and implied the Times’ reporting was misleading.

The only contrary view came from state Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican and chairman of the Judiciary Committee. He asked on his Facebook page if children’s school grades are covered by the Fourth Amendment. “If not, they should be!” he wrote.

The Sheriff’s Office remains defiant.

“We will not apologize for continuing to keep our community safe,” it wrote on Facebook in September, after the Times' initial report.

“Misinformation has recently been shared about these important programs and facts matter,” it posted in December, after Pasco parents and teachers began demanding a review of its use of student data.

On his personal Twitter feed, Nocco has continued projecting tranquility.

On Dec. 7: “Stay firm.”

On Dec. 14: “You will never influence the world by trying to be like it.”

On Dec. 17: “As long as you know God is for you, it doesn’t matter who is against you.”

Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco’s full statement:

I am extremely proud of the bond we have created at the Pasco Sheriff's Office with our community over the last 10 years. This bond has allowed us to best serve our community, reducing crime as our population has grown rapidly and focusing on serving the needs of our community.

Serving these needs looks different depending on the need our community has. Our efforts include food drives, volunteer units, addressing mental health and substance abuse and keeping our community safe. I am proud of the innovations we have taken at the Pasco Sheriff's Office during my tenure, including being the first agency in the Tampa Bay Area to have body worn cameras, allowing for unprecedented transparency over five years ago, and being on the forefront of Constitutional Policing, which includes our Citizen Advisory Council.

In addition, I am also proud of the work our agency has done to create what some consider the most diverse agency in the Tampa Bay Area (https://www.wtsp.com/article/news/investigations/10-investigates/pasco-sheriffs-office-highest-percentage-of-black-sworn-deputies-employees/67-68097afa-d257-4dc1-929e-23178036356d), that reflects the community we serve. This is a critical component of our relationship building and establishing trust with our community.

Further, through the good work of our Behavioral Health Intervention Team, I am proud of the impact they have every day to address mental health and substance abuse in our community. These are issues that we will not be able to arrest our way out of but they are issues that law enforcement has been tasked with addressing. We are proud to be on the forefront of initiatives such as this, with other agencies recently contacting us as they are interested in creating their own Behavioral Health Intervention Team.

Through our partnerships with the Pasco School District, I am proud of the work we do every day to keep our students safe. Pasco County schools were faced with 117 threats last year alone and we must thoroughly investigate and take every threat seriously to keep our students safe and to prevent another tragedy like Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

It is disappointing that these successes have been largely ignored by the Tampa Bay Times while the focus has been on a few former members who were held accountable for their actions. We will not be a party to litigating this in the media, despite the Times' apparently continuing to serve as an advocate on their behalf.

Personally and most importantly to me, I am very proud of my wife and the career she has built for herself. I am beyond thankful to the citizens of Pasco County for their trust, as I have been re-elected three times, the last two being unopposed.

The man behind the machine

The school district shares student data with the Sheriff’s Office, which uses it to identify potential future criminals.

Denouncing the program as promoting “racial bias” and further feeding the “school-to-prison pipeline,” a U.S. congressman Tuesday called for a federal investigation into the Pasco school district’s practice of sharing student data with law enforcement.

“This use of student records goes against the letter and the spirit of (the federal student privacy law) and risks subjecting students, especially Black and Latino students, to excessive law enforcement interactions and stigmatization,” said U.S. Rep. Robert C. Scott, a Virginia Democrat and the chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, in a letter to the acting federal education secretary.

“Further, instead of helping at risk students, pre-criminal categorization merely makes more concrete the schools-to-prison pipeline that is a result of institutional bias,” he added.

Scott’s scathing three-page letter heavily referenced an investigative series in the Tampa Bay Times that found the district had shared data on grades, attendance and student discipline with the Pasco Sheriff’s Office.

The Sheriff’s Office then used the information to make a list of schoolchildren who might “fall into a life of crime.”

The Times found the program had played out largely in secret. Neither students nor their parents are told about the designation. And when first asked about the program by a reporter, schools Superintendent Kurt Browning said he was unaware school-district data was being used that way.

More than 400 kids were on the list late last year, the Sheriff’s Office said.

A statement from the school district late Tuesday said officials looked forward to hearing from the U.S. Department of Education.

“Their knowledge of our agreements with the Sheriff’s Office appears to be based on recent news stories, which do not provide a full picture,” the statement said. “Those agreements include safeguards for the proper use of student information and are designed to provide supports to students who are at risk.”

School board member Cynthia Armstrong declined to comment. The other four board members did not return reporters’ calls.

Separately, the Pasco Sheriff’s Office said in a statement that it continues to stand by the program and that the initiative had been “categorically misrepresented by the Tampa Bay Times.”

“The At-Risk Youth program, which follows recommendations and requirements made as part of Florida’s response to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas tragedy, is an important part of keeping children safe,” it said, referencing the 2018 shooting at a Parkland high school that left 17 dead. “Importantly, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Commission identified silos and the lack of information sharing as key components that led to this tragedy.”

The federal education department declined to comment Tuesday, the last day of President Donald Trump’s administration.

In addition to grades and school attendance records, the Sheriff’s Office uses child-welfare histories from the state Department of Children and Families to determine which kids are likely to become criminals. Under the program, any child who gets a D or an F grade or has been the victim of child abuse could be subjected to scrutiny by law enforcement.

The agency has said it uses the list to provide mentoring and resources to at-risk kids.

But national experts have questioned the justification for mining students’ confidential records. And groups including the Brennan Center for Justice and the Future of Privacy Forum have raised legal and ethical concerns about the initiative.

Separately, the Pasco County Council PTA has called on the school district to review its data-sharing agreements, and tens of thousands of people have signed a petition urging Browning to end the program outright.

Scott echoed many of the same concerns in his letter, saying the program in Pasco raised “serious questions about the ethics of law enforcement agencies identifying law-abiding children for enhanced policing.”

“Of additional concern is the racial bias that necessarily feeds this or any similar system,” he added, noting that any law enforcement system that used school discipline data to identify kids as potential criminals was not only illegal, but unfair.

Scott also referenced the Times’ reporting on a separate Pasco intelligence program that uses people’s criminal histories and social networks to predict whether they will break the law in the future.

The Times found that the agency had monitored and harassed individuals it believed were likely to be future offenders. At least 1 in 10 were younger than 18.

“These abuses highlight the real dangers of this form of policing, especially as applied to students,” the congressman wrote.

In addition to requesting an investigation into the Pasco program, Scott asked the education department to “take steps to ensure that all school districts are appropriately managing student information.”

Full statement from the Pasco Sheriff’s Office:

The Pasco Sheriff’s Office continues to stand by this program, which has been categorically misrepresented by the Tampa Bay Times despite voluminous responses detailing the Intelligence-Led Policing philosophy, which is utilized across the Tampa Bay Area by numerous law enforcement agencies, and how it works and functions within our agency.

Specifically, the At-Risk Youth program, which follows recommendations and requirements made as part of Florida’s response to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas tragedy, is an important part of keeping children safe. Importantly, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Commission identified silos and the lack of information sharing as key components that led to this tragedy.

This At-Risk Youth program breaks down silos. If the Tampa Bay Times has any concerns about this program, they should also share their concerns regarding the recommendations made by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Commission.

None of the information received by the Sheriff’s Office is based on race, gender or any other demographic information.

The Pasco Sheriff’s Office reiterates our invitation for any individual or group who wishes to learn more about the At-Risk Youth program, and how it differs vastly from the Pasco Schools’ Early Warning program, to contact the Pasco Sheriff’s Office for the factual information on this program instead of relying on inaccurate and salacious reporting.

As such, the Pasco Sheriff’s Office has reached out to Congressman Scott’s staff to provide factual information on this program but has yet to hear back.

Congressman urges probe of Pasco school data program

Critics of the agency’s intelligence programs called the letter ‘patronizing’ and ‘offensive,’ and raised continued concerns about civil rights

It starts like an offer of admission from a prestigious university.

“We are pleased to inform you that you have been selected…” it says.

But the four-page letter from the Pasco Sheriff’s Office goes on to tell recipients they will be facing enhanced police scrutiny under the agency’s controversial intelligence program.

“You may wonder why you were enrolled in this program,” the letter continues. “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. As a result of this designation, we will go to great efforts to encourage change in your life through enhanced support and increased accountability.”

Last year, a Tampa Bay Times investigation revealed that the Sheriff’s Office creates lists of people it considers likely to break the law based on criminal histories, social networks and other unspecified intelligence. The agency sends deputies to their homes repeatedly, often without a search warrant or probable cause for an arrest.

Targets and their relatives, including four who are now suing the Sheriff’s Office in federal court, described the tactics as harassment and a violation of their constitutional rights. National policing experts drew comparisons to child abuse and surveillance that could be expected under an authoritarian regime.

The Times also found that the agency has a separate program that uses schoolchildren’s grades, attendance records and abuse histories to label them potential future criminals.

Earlier this year, Sheriff Chris Nocco and the Pasco County school district announced they would scale back some features of the school-data program. But the letter signals a broadening of the core program.

The Sheriff’s Office said the letter is part of a new intelligence effort aimed specifically at people whose criminal histories include drug offenses and violent crimes.

It was supposed to launch in mid-2020, but was delayed until December because of the pandemic, Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Amanda Hunter said.

It includes several new features, including that people can be dropped from the program after two years without “criminal activity” and a phone number they can call with questions.

In an online video, Sheriff’s Office Captain Toni Roach says being selected is “good news” because participants will “have the opportunity to receive assistance from the Pasco Sheriff’s Office and several community partners.”

But critics of the agency’s intelligence efforts, including an alliance of local, state and national organizations known as People Against the Surveillance of Children and Overpolicing, or the PASCO Coalition, said the latest communication raises even more concerns.

“The letter is basically threatening and promising a certain level of harassment and oversight that is in line with the stories we are hearing from the community,” said Raniah Elgendi, of the Council of American-Islamic Relations-Florida.

“We know that is not what makes people or communities more safe, this heightened level of surveillance,” said Lauren Johnson, an assistant counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

The Times found being named a Sheriff’s Office target could have serious consequences. Deputies showed up at homes at all hours of the day and night, writing tickets for violations like overgrown grass and making arrests for any reason they could find.

By 2020, some 1,000 people had been ensnared. About 100 were 18 years old or younger.

The new letter to so-called “prolific offenders” says its purpose is to communicate the agency’s “sincere desire” to help recipients “begin a new path.”

“We are committed to your success,” it says.

The letter notes that the Sheriff’s Office has partnered with Pasco County Human Services and provides contact information for 18 government agencies, health clinics and non-profit organizations.

But it also delivers a stern warning: “Our desire to help you will not hinder us from holding you fully accountable for your choices and actions.”

It then says the Sheriff’s Office will share recipients’ names and criminal histories with local, state and federal law enforcement agencies to ensure “the highest level of accountability” for any future crimes they commit.

Members of the PASCO Coalition questioned whether the Sheriff’s Office pressuring people to get services would actually help.

They also took issue with the language used in the letter.

“It is so incredibly patronizing and offensive on so many levels,” said Bacardi Jackson, Florida Managing Attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The coalition is continuing to demand changes to Pasco’s intelligence programs, its members said.

Times Staff Writer Kathryn Varn contributed to this report.

Pasco Sheriff’s Office letter targets residents for ‘increased accountability’

A national public interest firm is representing the plaintiffs, who allege their First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights were infringed upon.

Four Pasco County residents are suing Sheriff Chris Nocco in federal court, alleging his intelligence program violated their constitutional rights.

The plaintiffs, three of whom were featured in a recent Tampa Bay Times investigation into the Sheriff’s Office’s intelligence arm, say they were harassed, fined and even arrested by overzealous deputies who overstepped their bounds.

They want a judge to put an end to the program, which targets people the Sheriff’s Office deems likely to commit future crimes and their friends and family members.

“The goal here is to shut this program down and to make sure it stops, both for these clients and everybody in Pasco County,” said Robert Johnson, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, the national public interest law firm representing the plaintiffs.

The Sheriff’s Office said Wednesday it had not been made aware of the lawsuit and declined to comment. “We look forward to defending any lawsuits in which we may be named in the proper venue and will not be party to litigation via the media,” spokeswoman Amanda Hunter said.

The agency has previously said it stands behind its intelligence program and credited it with a reduction in burglaries, larcenies and auto thefts over the last decade. The decline mirrors those in nearby police jurisdictions.

Although Nocco launched the program shortly after being named sheriff in 2011, the details of how it works were not known to the public until the Times began reporting on it last year.

The news organization found that the Sheriff’s Office uses arrest histories and information from police reports — including whether people have witnessed or been the victim of a crime — to determine which residents are most likely to break the law.

Deputies then make repeated visits to those individuals’ homes, even when there is no warrant or evidence of a crime.

During some visits, the Times reported, deputies surrounded the targets’ homes in the middle of the night. On others, they wrote or threatened to write code enforcement citations for minor infractions like overgrown grass. Sometimes, they arrested family members of those being targeted.

One former deputy said the objective was to make peoples’ lives miserable.

Institute for Justice attorneys said their organization started looking into the situation after reading the Times’ report. The Virginia-based firm describes itself as libertarian and says it files lawsuits on behalf of individuals who are denied their constitutional rights.

“The behavior of the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office is outrageous,” attorney Ari Bargil said. “There’s no such thing as innocent until predicted guilty and that’s exactly how the program operates.”

Johnson said the Sheriff’s Office was violating the constitutional right to be secure in one’s own home. He said the agency was also violating residents’ due process rights because individuals who are targeted can’t challenge their status.

“Being on this list is almost like being on probation for future crimes that haven’t happened yet,” he said. “If you are on real probation, you get a hearing. It’s problematic that they put you on this future probation without any type of hearing.”

The four plaintiffs were either targets or the parents of people who were targeted.

Robert A. Jones, III, whose teenage son was targeted, said when he stopped complying with constant demands from deputies to search his home, he was arrested on charges of marijuana possession and child neglect. Both charges were dropped.

Jones was also issued several code enforcement citations and not told about them, he said. He was then arrested for failing to appear in court. His arrest record dashed his dream of going to law school, he said.

Jones hopes that the lawsuit will set a precedent so nobody else faces what he did.

“I think it’s everybody’s hope that they were put on this earth for a reason,” he said. If he hadn’t gone to jail, he added, “maybe nothing changes, maybe these guys get away with this forever.”

Tammy Heilman, whose teenage son was also a target, was arrested, too.

In September 2016, a deputy showed up to ask about a dirt bike he thought her son had purchased with stolen money. Heilman said she wouldn’t speak without her lawyer there.

The deputy stopped Heilman after she drove away and opened her car door, later alleging that neither she nor her 7-year-old daughter were wearing seat belts. Heilman says her daughter was wearing a seat belt, but she removed it when the door opened. Body-camera video of the interaction shows Heilman calling 9-1-1 for help.

A team of deputies arrived and forced Heilman out of the car. She was taken to jail and charged with resisting an officer, battery on a law enforcement officer and providing false information to deputies.

Two years later, she was arrested again, this time for opening her screen door into a deputy’s chest. After 76 days in jail, Heilman took a plea deal that allowed her to return home but made her a convicted felon.

“They need to stop,” she told the Times. “They have impacted a lot of people’s lives in a negative way.”

In her case, she said, the damage has been “beyond repair.”

The Institute for Justice isn’t the only organization working to address aspects of the Pasco intelligence program.

Earlier this week, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund filed a public records request, seeking to learn more about a separate, but related initiative that uses confidential data from the Pasco school district and the state Department of Children and Families to identify kids who could fall into a life of crime.

The Sheriff’s Office has said it uses the information to offer mentoring and resources to local students. But critics say some of that data is biased against children of color and with disabilities. And they worry a program of this nature could contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline.

“There is no place for predictive policing technology in school settings,” said Clarence Okoh, a Legal Defense and Education Fund fellow.

The school district, which is being asked to provide the records, has received the request and plans to respond, a spokesperson said.

Lawsuit: Pasco intelligence program violated citizens’ rights

The group asked the Department of Education to look at children of color, racial disparities in its federal investigation.

In September 2020, the Tampa Bay Times revealed a destructive “data-driven” policing program run by the Pasco County, Florida Sheriff's Office. The program is misleadingly called “Intelligence-Led Policing” (ILP), but in reality, it's nothing more than targeted child harassment by police. Young people's school grades and absences, minor infractions, and even instances where they are a victim of crime are used to inform a bogus rubric and point system, based on a formula that intends to "prevent future crimes"—essentially labeling youths as a potential future criminals.

Below is a page from the ILP’s pseudoscientific manual. Once a juvenile is tagged with this label, police show up at their home and harass their entire family. As one former deputy described the program to reporters, the objective was to “make their lives miserable until they move or sue.”

The fault lies not just with the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office, which built this system and uses it to hound youth. The system also functions with the help of public schools and child welfare agencies that collect data about kids for purposes of providing them with important educational and social services, and then hand this data over to the Sheriff. This is an egregious abuse of trust. As a reaction to this publicized relationship between the schools and the police, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies organization cut nearly in half the money it had intended to give Pasco County schools, pulling the remaining $1.7 million. The organization explained, reasonably, that the program was contradictory to their values.

It’s not hard to see why an organization would pull grant funding. The program, as well as many other data-driven or predictive policing models, creates a self-fulfilling feedback loop from which it is nearly impossible for a child or their family to escape. Anyone, when put under a microscope by police, might accumulate citations, fines, and even arrests. And that’s what this program does: it takes families, often ones that are already struggling, and puts them under the aggressive eye of police who expect their lives to become even more miserable.

Some of the stories that emerged from news reporting illustrate the harms that getting stuck in an enforcement loop can have on people. After one 15-year-old was arrested for stealing bicycles out of a garage, the algorithm continuously dispatched police to harass him and his family. Over the span of five months, police went to his home 21 times. They also showed up at his gym and his parent’s place of work. The Tampa Bay Times revealed that since 2015, the sheriff's office has made more than 12,500 similar preemptive visits to people.

These visits often resulted in other, unrelated fines and arrests that further victimized families and added to the likelihood that they would be visited and harassed again. In one incident, the mother of a targeted teenager was issued a $2,500 fine for having chickens in the backyard. In another incident, a father was arrested because his 17-year-old was smoking a cigarette. These behaviors occur in all neighborhoods, across all economic strata—but only marginalized people, who live under near constant police scrutiny, face penalization.

The Sheriff’s Office and the school district have claimed that the program is intended to identify at-risk youth in need of state intervention or mentorship. But in at least five places in the Sheriff’s ILP manual (including the one below), the program’s actual stated purpose is to identify potential future offenders.

The ILP manual lists characteristics that the program considers as so-called “criminogenic risk factors”; these are the factors unscientifically believed to lead to future criminality. The characteristics include being a victim of a crime, unspecified “low intelligence,” “antisocial parents,” and being “socio-economically deprived.” The ILP manual explains the program’s purpose is to identify youth “destined to a life of crime.”

This is absurd. No one is destined to a life of crime. Having bad grades or economic struggles does not make a person into a criminal suspect, or make them deserving of police harassment.

In response to the program, a number of civil liberties groups have stepped up to try to stop the data sharing between the school district and the police, and end the ILP program. Color of Change launched a petition allowing people to tell the Superintendent of schools to stop sharing data with the police. The Institute for Justice also launched a lawsuit against the Sheriff's Office, asserting the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights of those that have been victimized by the program. We anticipate more advocacy to come against this program.

In response to recent news about the program, Florida Republican Congressmember Matt Gaetz called on Governor DeSantis to remove the sheriff, Chris Nocco, from his post.

Florida state senator Audrey Gibson has also introduced SB 808, which seeks to place a few limits on this kind of Intelligence-Led Policing. Most importantly, it would require notice to a person that they are listed and an opportunity to appeal that listing. The bill would also require departments that use these programs to adopt guidelines to address data processing, program goals, and number and length of visits. Further, the bill would mandate documentation of visits, including audio and video (presumably from police body worn cameras), and records on the demographics of visited youths. Although this bill may mitigate some of the program’s more egregious potential abuses, it’s not nearly enough to prevent all of the harms ILP generates. Predictive policing programs that rob people of their presumption of innocence, and open them up to harassment and surveillance, should be banned.

EFF has been an outspoken critic of police use of gang databases, which often have subjective and racist criteria for inclusion and which open up an individual to unfair police harassment and surveillance. Once put on the list, people often can be harassed for years without any knowledge of how to get remove themselves. Such opaque conditions exist in Pasco County as well.

EFF is working with a coalition of local, statewide, and national organizations that are trying to dismantle this harmful ILP program. Attempts to predict crime and sniff out future criminals are not new; they’ve been fodder for science fiction writers, criminologists, and detectives for over a century. But then and now, no one cannot predict crime, they can only create targets through excessive surveillance. “Data” and “intelligence” too often are buzzwords that imply a police initiative is objective and immune from human biases. But when fallible and biased individuals, including school administrators and police, determine who is and is not a future criminal based on exam grades or supposedly “antisocial” behavior, the “intelligence” system will only serve to replicate pre-existing racial and class hierarchies.

Pasco County’s Sheriff Must End Its Targeted Child Harassment Program

Five months after Robert Jones, a 44-year-old aerospace process auditor, moved to what he described as the “really nice” neighborhood of Gulf Harbors in Pasco County, Florida, with his wife and four kids, “seven or eight” police cars showed up at his door.

Officers said they had heard about his then-16-year-old son Bobby’s school delinquency from colleagues in Pinellas County, where the family previously lived, and wanted to make sure he understood that the Pasco Sheriff’s Office did things a little differently, Jones recalled.

Bobby had been expelled from his last school after he was caught smoking pot and then got into a fight with another student. But both he and his dad had hoped the move to Pasco County would provide a fresh start.

“Truthfully, I thought it was one of these ‘scared straight’ moments,” said Jones, referring to the sheriff’s office's intimidating welcome to the neighborhood.

Officers said they wanted to come in and talk to his kids, and Jones said he let them. Within seconds they had their flashlights on and were, Jones said, “running rampant” without a search warrant.

The police report stated that Jones consented to a search. But he disputes this.

They scoured the house and found empty zip-close bags in his son’s room that later tested positive for traces of marijuana. Bobby was arrested and spent three weeks in juvenile detention before his trial, where the judge dismissed the charges due to the lack of measurable marijuana. He had been at his new school for just over a week.

What Jones didn’t realize at the time was that his son had been identified as a target by the Pasco Sheriff’s Office's “intelligence-led” policing program. Police had gathered records of Bobby’s previous interactions with law enforcement and were using his history to predict that he would be a troublemaker in Pasco County.

After Bobby was released, a monthslong ordeal followed, which Jones described as a “horror story” of police showing up at the family home, sometimes multiple times a day or in the middle of the night, to inquire about Bobby or ask to enter the home. Any time there was a crime in the neighborhood, such as a burglary, Bobby was a suspect. On some occasions, described in a lawsuit filed in March by Jones and others targeted bythe Pasco Sheriff’s Office, as many as 18 officers would show up at the home, “banging on windows and yelling at his young daughters while they were hiding under the bed.”

Jones, who had studied to be a paralegal, said he tried to stand his ground and refused to allow officers to conduct any more warrantless searches of his property. But police interpreted this behavior, the lawsuit states, as uncooperative and he was repeatedly cited — and eventually arrested — for property code violations such as having overly long grass, missing numbers on his mailbox and a Jet Ski trailer on the property.

From October 2015 through April 2016, Jones, who had no previous criminal history, was arrested five times. None of the arrests resulted in a conviction. His home was ransacked, laptops and phones seized, and he ultimately fled their home in the middle of the night to avoid further harassment by police, the lawsuit alleges.

“My family will never be made whole from this atrocity,” he said. “Where does anyone in my family get their presumption of innocence back?”

The sheriff’s office disputed the idea that its intelligence-led policing was “predictive policing” in the sense characterized by the science fiction movie "Minority Report," where people are arrested by a police department’s "pre-crime" division before they have the chance to carry out illegal deeds.

It said the Pasco Sheriff’s Office used historical data to “work with those who have shown a consistent pattern of offending to attempt to break the cycle of recidivism” but said Bobby was not added to its “prolific offender program,” which results in random visits from deputies, until 2017 — long after the period of harassment alleged by Jones.

A spokesman said Bobby had interacted with the sheriff’s office three times before officers showed up at the family home in September 2015. The spokesman said officers went to the house to discuss “involvement in criminal activity in the area” and searched his room to look for a stolen GPS device, which is how they found the empty baggies.

In a lengthy statement released by the agency in response to reporting on the program, a spokesman said the individuals accusing the sheriff’s office of harassment all had “lengthy criminal histories, often with a multitude of arrests and victims.”

Predictive analytics

Jones' family and civil liberties experts believe his case is emblematic of a broader effort by law enforcement agencies across the United States to predict criminality based on a wide range of data points that are crunched together and used to assign a risk score to individuals or places. While some law enforcement agencies say it can be a useful approach to efficient resource allocation and early intervention, critics say these programs can enter into the alarming realm of "pre-crime," where the presumption of innocence is lost, and that they encode existing racial and social biases.

Pasco County’s approach to “intelligence-led” policing, developed over a decade, has drawn particular concern from civil liberties experts because of a data-sharing arrangement with the local school district, which was first reported by Tampa Bay Times. That partnership gave the police access to data relating to students’ grades, attendance and behavior as well as any history of abuse or other “adverse childhood experiences.”

School records were used to allocate students one of four labels: on track, at risk, off track or critical. Getting a D grade or having a parent or sibling go to prison could be enough to put a child in the “at risk” category, according to Pasco’s own 83-page “Intelligence-Led Policing Manual,” first obtained by the Tampa Bay Times.

The manual, last updated in January 2018, states that the data-sharing was designed to identify “at-risk youth who are destined to a life of crime” and intervene to “set them on the right path.”

The sheriff’s office took the list of 20,000 students determined to be at risk, according to school data, and cross-referenced it with its own records of law enforcement interactions to come up with a smaller list of a few hundred students to be monitored closely and offered “positive mentorship and support” by school resource officers — sheriff’s office deputies contracted to work at the school. The agency does not notify parents of children added to the list but said parents can file a public records request to find out.

Bobby and his dad say they were never offered any kind of diversion program or support at school or home, only harassment and punishment. The sheriff’s office said the program to identify at-risk students was entirely separate from the "prolific offender" program but that Bobby and other adolescent offenders were given a “resource card” featuring details about “opportunities in our community” relating to mental health and substance abuse.

Criminal justice advocates say programs like these targeting adolescents, and the broader trend to increase surveillance in schools under the guise of school safety, fuel the so-called school-to-prison pipeline. This is where instead of letting children and teenagers make and learn from their mistakes, they are marked as criminals at an early age — even if they are only interacting with school resource officers. Once they are in the criminal justice system, it’s almost impossible to escape.

“This idea that you can predict criminality is very worrisome and extremely troubling. You cannot,” said Jason Nance, professor of law at the University of Florida Levin College of Law. “These are real kids with real lives. If you have extra scrutiny on a child and that child does something minor or untoward, you may set that student on a pathway in which that student will become more involved in the criminal justice system later on.”

After the Tampa Bay Times disclosed the existence of the program in late 2020, the program received widespread criticism from civil liberties and legal experts.

“It is really, as someone who has studied this, it is jaw-droppingly bad in all aspects,” said Andrew Ferguson, a law professor at American University. “They basically built this system as a justification to chase the bad kids out of town, to monitor them in over-aggressive ways with no intention to help them but to make their lives so miserable that they would leave.”

The intelligence-led policing program, which is the subject of the lawsuit in which Jones and three other parents are named as plaintiffs, alleges that the sheriff’s office repeatedly violated property rights with its unwarranted, suspicionless visits to targets’ homes.

“Having a policy of harassment and intimidation and constitutional violations of a county’s own residents is not a legitimate way to do police work,” said Ari Bargil, an attorney at the Institute for Justice, the legal nonprofit bringing the case.

Federal notice

Pasco’s program has also attracted the attention of the U.S. Department of Education, which in April opened an investigation into the data-sharing arrangement between the school district and the sheriff’s office.

The Department of Education investigation focuses on whether the data-sharing between the school district and law enforcement violates the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a federal law that governs access to children’s education records. Under FERPA, a school is not allowed to disclose personally identifiable information from a student’s education records without consent, although there are some exceptions for emergency situations.

“The unlawful sharing of information between school districts and law enforcement is not unusual,” said Harold Jordan, senior policy advocate at the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. “What makes Pasco County an outlier is the notion that they scan large groups of kids’ records. They aren’t even claiming the kids have made any threats. These aren’t situations where there is any legitimate law enforcement investigation happening, just that the school has identified some kids as disruptive.”

Alberto Betancourt, a Department of Education spokesman, said the agency is not able to provide any further details about the investigation until it has concluded — a process that experts say could take years.

If Pasco County Schools is found to be in violation of FERPA, it could lose its federal funding. However, privacy expert Linnette Attai, author of a book about FERPA compliance, said this has never happened before and is “an extremely unlikely outcome.”

In early May, weeks after the Department of Education launched its investigation, the Pasco Sheriff’s Office and the school board revised their data-sharing agreement so that police officers contracted as school resource officers would no longer have access to student grades or discipline histories, nor the school district’s early warning system, which categorizes students as on track, off track or at risk.

In a statement, Sheriff Chris Nocco said the agency was “voluntarily making this update” to “ease any anxiety that parents may have as a result of misinformation perpetuated by media reports.”

Some civil liberties and criminal justice organizations say this doesn’t go far enough, noting that the new wording still allows "criminal intelligence analysts" from the sheriff’s office to access school data.

A group of 30 advocacy groups called the PASCO Coalition (People Against Surveillance of Children and Overpolicing​), which includes the Southern Poverty Law Center, Electronic Frontier Foundation and Color of Change, issued a statement saying it was “extremely disappointed” by the announced revisions to the data-sharing agreement because they did not go far enough. It called for the immediate termination of “the student data-sharing arrangement for any collaboration, involvement, or participation in school-based predictive policing” operated by the sheriff’s office.

National problem

School districts and law enforcement officials nationwide are struggling with similar problems. In 2015, in St. Paul, Minnesota, the Ramsey County Attorney's Office, the St. Paul school board, the Ramsey County Sheriff's Office and the city of St. Paul, among others, started collaborating and trying to come up with a new way to help troubled youth and families.

Like the program in Pasco County, this one also was designed to help children avoid any interactions with the juvenile justice system by sharing data across agencies.

In a slide deck from April 2018, the agencies stated that they wanted to “transform the way our public systems work together by developing a new triage referral system that uses data-driven decision-making” and “prevent interaction with the juvenile justice system” by creating a “statewide system” to share information across agencies.

This plan was quickly met with resistance from local advocacy groups, which banded together to form the Coalition to Stop the Cradle to Prison Algorithm. Local activists argued that such data could be used to racially profile and make inaccurate predictions about students of color, which could have led to outcomes that local authorities were trying to avoid.

Marika Pfefferkorn, co-founder of the coalition, pointed to the fact that the Minnesota Department of Human Rights found in March 2018 that students of color comprise two-thirds of all school suspensions across the state, despite the fact that such students constitute only 31 percent of the student population.

So, she argued, if a predictive model is using implicitly biased data like school suspensions, it is unlikely to be a useful way to determine future criminality.

”What they were proposing to use as indicators would not actually be a sound understanding of who was in need,” she said.

The program was halted in less than a year.

Just a few years before St. Paul began to think about how to integrate data-sharing as a way to predict possible criminal behavior, Rochester, Minnesota, explored a related idea.

Rochester was one of several cities — including Memphis, Tennessee, and Richmond, Virginia — to buy an “advanced analytics software” tool called InfoSphere Identity Insight that would enable local police to forecast crime “hot spots.”

In the Minnesota city, which is about 100 miles southeast of the Twin Cities, the goal was to not only target adult criminals but also approximately 30 juveniles, combining data about criminal history and their real-world social network.

But this program didn’t have great results, according to Capt. John Sherwin, a 20-year veteran of the Rochester Police Department. The reality was that sometimes “predictions” produced by the IBM system were things that veteran officers had already figured out. For example, Sherwin said, juveniles who have a probation violation are slightly more likely to commit a violent felony offense as an adult than the general population.

“The idea was novel: We are going to disrupt these trends that have plagued juveniles going to prison,” he said. “The results were really underwhelming.”

In 2019, after being sued by the ACLU, California’s Riverside County stopped using a voluntary probation program that designated young people as at risk of criminality for noncriminal behavior. Signals that a child was at risk included truancy, talking back to school officials or poor academic performance. Adolescents who were signed up to the program faced unannounced home visits, restrictions on who they could speak to and curfews.

“Young people are supposed to be allowed to do stupid things. That’s how they learn,” said Corey Jackson, CEO of student mentoring program Sigma Beta Xi, which partnered with the ACLU in the lawsuit. “But with this program, if they made a mistake, they could be punished for the rest of their life.”

The Pasco Sheriff’s Office’s manual described this type of intelligence-led policing as a way for law enforcement to operate more efficiently and focus resources on the “most serious and prolific offenders.”

Intelligence-led policing "emphasizes analysis and intelligence as pivotal to an objective, decision-making framework that prioritizes crime hot spots, repeat victims, prolific offenders, and criminal groups. It facilitates crime and harm reduction, disruption, and prevention through strategic and tactical management, deployment and enforcement,” the manual states.

Lasting impact

For Robert Jones, the damage is already done.

“I have friends who are police officers and have seen plenty of good police. But my kids will never see them like that,” said Jones. “They don’t think they are out to help at all, but to hurt, and that’s really scary.”

His son Bobby, now 21, who is currently in the Pinellas County jail awaiting trial for an assault charge, is struggling to deal with the fallout.

"I was still a child," he said. "Rather than targeting me, they should have offered some kind of redirection or supervision. It would have helped my mental state."

CORRECTION (June 7, 2021 12:02a.m.ET): A previous version of this article misidentified Robert Jones' wife. They are married; she is not his girlfriend.

Predictive policing strategies for children face pushback