Sheriff's Effort To Prevent Crime Goes Way Too Far

In the movie Minority Report, police are able to use psychics called “precogs” to tell when someone was about to murder another. The police would then respond and arrest the person in question before they could do anything wrong.

To call it a flawed system is putting it mildly. Luckily, there aren’t any real psychics being employed by police departments for the purpose of arresting people before they do something.

However, in one county, the sheriff has created a program that tries to predict who will be a violent criminal, and then he reportedly takes it too far.

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.”

Now, in theory, if someone is already a career criminal, there may well be plenty of reason to keep an eye on them. Police doing that could easily be construed as harassment, right?

Unfortunately, it goes beyond that.

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.

Now, maybe it’s just me, but at a time when trust in law-enforcement is incredibly low and when the media is all but looking for things to hit police and sheriff’s departments over, you have to wonder just how intelligent it is to have a program like this up and running.

The report notes that two of the nation’s largest law enforcement agencies recent scrapped similar systems following complaints, but Pasco County is still going strong with theirs.

Look, I get the desire to try and prevent crimes before they get bad. However, when you’re showing up at friends’ homes and parents work to check on the kid when he hasn’t done anything is going too far. You’re making it impossible for the kid to have a life.

Especially since the peers a kid like this would need to avoid additional charges are going to also be the ones who have parents that aren’t going to be pleased with the police showing up out of the blue.

As a result, it is likely to push young Rio to find friends whose parents simply don’t care. Those are also more likely to be children whose parents don’t care about a lot of other things, like what their kids are up to on any given day.

In other words, this program isn’t predictive so much as a self-fulfilling prophecy in the making.

Frankly, this kind of thing needs to end.