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

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

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.”

Screen capture from the manual of the Intelligence-Led Policing program.

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. 

Screen capture from the manual of the Intelligence-Led Policing program.

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. 

Published March 22, 2021 at 01:34PM
Read more on eff.org

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