A troubling news report from Pasco County, Florida this week detailed a sheriff’s department that uses a crime-predicting algorithm. The report from the Tampa Bay Times alleged that the department generated lists of people likely to commit crime based on past interactions with law enforcement. According to the report, the algorithm has led to harassment of local children and their families by police.
The algorithm was the brainchild of Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco, who touted the program during his 2011 campaign for the position. The department refers to the program as intelligence-led policing, or ILP. “Instead of being reactive, we are going to be proactive,” Nocco said of the plan.
ILP works by compiling a list of people who are considered likely to commit a crime, based on arrest histories, intelligence and police discretion. Officers are then instructed to closely monitor these so-called “prolific offenders.”
According to the department, ILP has led to a 74.4% reduction of residential burglaries in Pasco 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,” as statement said.
However, some citizens have come forward with stories of disproportionate harassment and abuse of people who make the list — many of whom were minors with as little as one prior offense.
One such target was 15-year-old Rio Wojtecki, who had been charged with stealing motorbikes in 2018. A year later, while Wojtecki continued serving a probation sentence for the crime, his name appeared in the “Top 5” list of prolific offenders in the area. As a result, officers reportedly visited his home 21 times between September 2019 and January 2020. Often acknowledging that the boy was not in trouble, the officers nevertheless questioned him on several occasions.
The department didn’t just settle for home check-ins, either. Police reportedly visited his mother’s workplace, his friend’s house, and the gym he goes to, asking about him. One night, an officer pounded on the door of his home when only his older sisters were home.
“KayLee!” the officer was heard yelling on bodycam footage. “You’re about to have some issues.” The officer then threatened the 19-year-old with a citation for missing address numbers on the house unless he was allowed to search inside.
One night in January 2020 it all became too much for Rio. After another visit from police, the teen reportedly suffered an acute panic attack, causing him to have trouble breathing and collapse.
According to the department, Wojtecki had been added to the “Top 5” due to his “criminal network and associations.” They also alleged that the boy is in a gang, although would not elaborate on evidence. Wojtecki and his mom both denied the charge.
Critics have also pointed out the criteria used to determine who gets put on the list of prolific offenders. The Tampa Bay Times reports that names are weighted according to a point system. Names that appear most often in police reports receive more points, making them candidates for the list.
However, the system reportedly assigns points to any name that appears on a report — including suspects who were later acquitted. As University of Texas sociology professor Sarah Bryane pointed out, there are no specific rules for designating someone a suspect.
Other experts took issue with the department’s assertion that the system eliminates bias by focusing purely on crime data. Instead, they said, it merely creates the potential for the list to reflect racially biased policing practices that already exist.
“[It’s 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 ever seen in my career,” David Kennedy, a criminologist at John Jay College, told the Tampa Bay Times.
Kennedy also referred to the department’s tactics as “child abuse.”
“There is nothing that justifies terrorizing school kids,” he said.
The Times reported that of the nearly 1,000 people who have gone through the system, 1 in 10 have been younger than 18. In addition, of the 20 homes most visited by police, more than half were home to middle- or high-school-aged targets.
In a Facebook post responding to the Times’ report, the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office defended the program, once again touting the reduction of residential burglaries and the supposed lack of bias it offers.
“Let us again be profusely clear that this model is based SOLELY on an individual’s criminal history,” the post read. “It is nameless, faceless, ageless, genderless and removes ALL identifying factors of an individual, EXCEPT for their criminal history. This philosophy removes any chance of bias in law enforcement, which is something that should be celebrated.”
For more information on the program, including more testimonies from targeted families, you can read the Tampa Bay Times‘ full report. You can also watch a compilation of body cam footage gathered in the investigation below.