A Florida sheriff's department has been accused of surveilling and harassing residents for years under a sprawling 'intelligence program'.
Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco implemented the program after he took office in 2011 and promised that it would make communities safer by relying on data to reduce and prevent crime.
But a bombshell investigation by the Tampa Bay Times revealed that the program is rife with harassment, intimidation and flagrant use of force against residents who are not suspected of committing crimes.
Nearly two dozen people targeted under the program detailed their experiences in interviews with the Times, sharing how deputies swarmed their houses in the middle of the night, ticketed them for tiny offenses like overgrown grass, and stalked their loved ones for information.
In one example, deputies targeted a 15-year-old boy and visited his home 21 times in three months merely because he'd been convicted of trespassing and theft a year earlier.
In another case, a teenage target's father was arrested after deputies spotted his son's 17-year-old friend smoking a cigarette inside his house. Deputies continued regular visits at the home after that incident, ultimately prompting the father to move out of Pasco County.
Sheriff Nocco has repeatedly touted the success of the program, under which his office has kept tabs on nearly 1,000 people in five years - including at least 10 under the age of 18, according to an analysis by the Times.
But locals and experts have decried the agency's practices as 'morally repugnant', gang-like and wholly undemocratic.
The Pasco County Sheriff's Office in Florida has been accused of surveilling and harassing residents for years under a sprawling 'intelligence program' (file photo)
An investigation by the Tampa Bay Times revealed that the program is rife with harassment, intimidation and flagrant use of force against residents who are not suspected of committing crimes. Pictured: Deputies perform a check on a person targeted under the program
Nocco's Intelligence Led Policing program, which launched in 2011, operates with a staff of 30 people and a budget of $2.8 million budget, run by a former senior counterrorism analyst who was assigned to the National Counterterrorism Center.
The program works by generating lists of people considered likely to break the law by examining arrest histories, 'unspecified intelligence' and 'arbitrary decisions by police analysts', according to the Times.
The Sheriff's Office said that an initial list of targets is compiled by a computer every 90 days, before analysts go through it and determine which 100 people should be on the final list.
Deputies are charged with going out and interrogating people whose names appear on the list - often without evidence of a specific crime, probable cause or a search warrant.
Former officers who worked under the program described how they were expected to continue making those visits until they found some reason to make an arrest or issue a citation.
One former deputy told the Times that the goal was to 'make their lives miserable until they move or sue'.
Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco (pictured) implemented the program after he took office in 2011 and promised that it would make communities safer by relying on data to reduce and prevent crime
Nocco described the check-in practice as 'bothering criminals' during remarks in front of the Council of Neighborhood Associations in 2012.
Targets identified on the list are deemed by the department to be 'prolific offenders'. The program's manual states that the individuals have 'taken to a career of crime' and are 'not likely to reform'.
'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 strategy will have no impact,' the manual states.
After each check, deputies record new information into the data system - both about the people on the list and about their family members, friends and any other acquaintances.
Records showed that the Sheriff's office has performed more than 12,500 checks since September 2015.
One of the most alarming cases outlined in the Times report was that of 15-year-old Rio Wojtecki, whose name was added to the list of targets last fall, almost a year after he was arrested for sneaking into car ports with a friend and stealing motorized bicycles.
Between September 2019 and January 2020, Pasco County deputies visited Rio's home at least 21 times, according to dispatch logs - even though he was also being monitored by a state-issued juvenile probation officer.
The deputies also stopped by the car dealership where Rio's mom worked, as well as his friend's houses and the gym he frequented.
Body camera footage from some of the checks, obtained by the Times, showed deputies acknowledging that Rio wasn't getting into trouble on more than one occasion and asking questions about his friends.
The deputies were heard telling Rio that they had to keep checking on him because he was a target on the list.
One of the most alarming cases outlined in the Times report was that of 15-year-old Rio Wojtecki (pictured), whose name was added to the list of targets last fall, almost a year after he was arrested for sneaking into car ports with a friend and stealing motorized bicycles
Bodycam footage shows deputies stopping by Rio's house on one of the 21 occasions
The Times found that the program focused heavily on juvenile offenders like Rio.
Out of the 20 addresses that were visited most by deputies, more than half were home to middle or high school-age targets.
In one instance, the mother of one a teenage target was slapped with a $2,500 fine because she had five chickens in her backyard.
In another, a woman named Tammy Heilman was arrested during a traffic stop in September 2016 after deputies noticed that she and her daughter weren't wearing seatbelts.
The deputies had gone to Heilman's house earlier in the day to ask questions about her 16-year-old son, whom they believed had purchased a dirt bike with stolen money.
Heilman declined to speak to the deputies without an attorney present and left the house to take her seven-year-old daughter to a Girl Scouts meeting.
One of the deputies, Andrew Denbo, then followed her down the street and pulled her over because of the seatbelt violation, according to a police report.
Bodycam footage showed Denbo opening Heilman's car door and ordering her to step out, at which point she refused and called 911 to report that a deputy had hurt her.
Deputies were then seen dragging Heilman out of the car before she was arrested on charges of resisting an officer, battery on an officer and providing false information about her son.
While she sat in the back of a squad car on her way to the police station, Denbo explained his department's objectives to Heilman in frank terms.
'Here's the policy of the agency. I'll explain it to you so it makes sense,' he said on the bodycam footage.
'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.'
Tammy Heilman (pictured with her children) was arrested during a traffic stop in September 2016 after deputies noticed that she and her daughter weren't wearing seatbelts. The deputies had gone to Heilman's house earlier in the day to ask questions about her 16-year-old son, whom they believed had purchased a dirt bike with stolen money
Heilmain's confrontation with police was captured on bodycam footage (pictured)
The Times presented its findings to the Pasco County Sheriff's Office six weeks prior to publishing its full report on Thursday.
The agency responded with 30 pages of statements defending the program and praising how it had managed to reduce property crime in the county.
'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 read.
'Our first and primary mission is to serve and protect our community and the Intelligence Led Policing philosophy assists us in achieving that mission.'
The Times noted that Pasco County's decline in property crimes matched similar declines seen in seven surrounding jurisdictions since 2011. During the same period, Pasco was the only county out of those eight jurisdictions that saw an increase in violent crimes.
In response to criticism over the program and incidents that occurred by its hand, the Sheriff's Office accused the Times of 'cherry-picking' bad examples and painting 'basic law enforcement functions' as harassment, the outlet reported.
Nocco declined to be interviewed when approached by the Times on six separate occasions.
He was appointed to the position by then-Governor Rick Scott in 2011 when his predecessor resigned and was formally elected in 2012.
Nocco was 35 years old and had far less experience than the previous sheriff when he took over the post but had deep ties to Republican politics which may have influenced Scott's decision.
Immediately after taking office, Nocco presented his initiative for intelligence-led policing, stating: 'Instead of being reactive, we are going to be proactive.'
He later said the approach to crime prevention was not unlike the way the federal government targets terrorists.
Three former top officials within the Pasco County Sheriff's Office spoke to the Times about how the were driven to resign because the agency didn't tolerate criticism, including about the program.
The outlet brought their findings to the attention of 15 experts who widely condemned the agency's practices.
One of those experts was David Kennedy, a criminologist at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice whose research on crime prevention is referenced in Pasco County's policies.
Kennedy called the program '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'.
Matthew Barge, an expert in police practices and civil rights, called the practices 'morally repugnant'.
The experts noted that two other major US police departments - in Los Angeles and Chicago - have scrapped similar programs following public concerns that they infringed on citizens' rights.
Despite backlash in Pasco County - which is likely to heighten in the wake of the Times report - Nocco's department has continued to expand the program.
Read the Tampa Bay Times' full report here.