Help or harassment? Florida sheriff sends letter to those with criminal past

Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco uses intelligence-based policing approach

NEW PORT RICHEY, Fla. – A Florida sheriff is sending letters to people with criminal histories offering help to get on a better path, a practice critics call unwarranted harassment.

The Tampa Bay Times reports that Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco's letter is the latest step in a broad effort to monitor people considered likely lawbreakers. The campaign uses criminal histories, social networks and other intelligence to create the lists.

The letter starts off with the salutation “we are pleased to inform you that you have been selected to participate in a Prolific Offender Program" run by the sheriff's office along with help from 18 entities ranging from the Salvation Army to alcohol abuse programs to the state Department of Children and Families.

“We are committed to your success,” the letter says. “We are also committed to pursuing consistent, firm, and fair consequences if you continue in the criminal behavior that is not only hurtful to you, but to your family and our community.”

Critics of this intelligence-based policing approach say it amounts to improper surveillance and unconstitutional monitoring of people based entirely on their past actions.

“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.

People enrolled in the program can be dropped if they remain crime-free for two years, according to the sheriff's letter. Officials say it is specifically aimed at people who committed violent crimes or drug offenses.

The new effort comes amid a federal lawsuit filed earlier this year challenging earlier versions of the policing program, part of which involved tracking schoolchildren's grades, attendance records and abuse histories to label them potential future criminals.

The sheriff's office says that school program has been scaled back. The lawsuit seeking to end the approach, however, remains pending in Tampa federal court.

The Times won a Pulitzer Prize earlier this year for its reporting on the Pasco sheriff’s practices.