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

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.

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I have a 45-year career in newspapers, including nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. Florida is wacky, wonderful, unpredictable and a national force. It's a treat to have a front-row seat for it all.

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Contributors & reporters: Phil Ammann, Renzo Downey, Rick Flagg, A.G. Gancarski, Joe Henderson, Janelle Irwin, Jacob Ogles, Scott Powers, Bob Sparks, Andrew Wilson.
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