How a Florida Sheriff harasses families: Watch the body-cam video
Warning: Some of the videos contain explicit language
Over the past five years, nearly 1,000 Pasco County residents have been swept up in the Pasco Sheriff’s Office’s data-driven policing program. The program aims to use analytics to identify people who the department thinks are most likely to commit future crimes.
Deputies create a list and “check on” anyone whose name appears. They knock on doors at all hours of the day and night. They look for reasons to write code enforcement citations or arrest the targets and their friends and family.
“We’re bothering criminals,” Sheriff Chris Nocco said in 2011. “That’s what we do.”
At least 1 in 10 of the program’s targets have been 17 years old or younger. Some had been arrested only once or twice. And the people deputies are bothering are often friends and family members.
Many of the interactions were captured on body-camera footage, obtained by the Tampa Bay Times through public records requests. Here’s what the video shows.
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In 2019, 15-year-old Rio Wojtecki was labeled a “Top 5” criminal — a category intended for key players in criminal networks. Deputies started checking on him around the clock.
Rio and his family didn’t understand why. Even the deputies conceded he only had one charge on his record, from when he and some friends stole two motorized bikes. He already had a probation officer checking on him for that.
The deputies told him to stop hanging out with his “bad” friends. The department has told the Times that Rio was in a gang. Rio says he was not.
When Rio was doing homework at his mother’s office in September 2019, the deputies hassled two of his sisters, who were 19 and 22 at the time. They threatened to write unrelated code citation fines unless the sisters let the deputies search the house for Rio.
Deputies also visited the car dealership where Rio’s mom worked. They even checked his gym. During the coronavirus pandemic, deputies continued to visit and question Rio.
When Sheila Smith’s son began getting into trouble, she sent him to another county to live with his grandmother, hoping to get him away from bad influences. The Sheriff’s Office signed off on the arrangement, she said. But deputies started visiting her and her husband, anyway, asking to check on their son.
Each time, Smith calmly explained that her son had moved away.
They came again after that, department records show. Smith said there were more checks that weren’t recorded. Once, deputies handcuffed Smith’s husband and put him in the back of their squad car. After some time, they released him. They said they mistook him for his brother.
Families who did not react so patiently could face life-changing consequences.
After multiple visits and more than $2,500 in code enforcement citations, Tammy Heilman told a deputy asking about her son — one of the program’s targets — to call her attorney. Late for her 7-year-old daughter’s Girl Scout meeting, she drove away in a rush. The deputy yelled that they weren’t wearing seat belts. He followed her down the block, pulled her over and arrested her.
Heilman was charged with resisting arrest and battery on an officer. She also was charged with providing false information about her son. Deputies told her family that she was arrested for driving away with the seatbelt violation. On the ride to jail, a deputy said she was arrested because she didn’t stop to speak with him.
Heilman was released on bail. But two years later, while Heilman was fighting the charges in court, the deputies were back at her house.
They charged her with felony battery on a law enforcement officer for hitting the deputy with the screen door. Because she was on probation for the previous arrest, she was ineligible for bail. She stayed in jail for 76 days before finally agreeing to a plea deal so she could be home for Christmas.
Deputies asked to speak with Michelle Dotson’s developmentally disabled grandson, Da’Marion, about a car theft. She asked them to leave and contact his attorney, she said. They waited on the street and when the teenager came outside for school, a deputy stepped toward him. Dotson grabbed her grandson by the wrist. The Sheriff’s Office didn’t provide footage of this part of the encounter, but the police report said Dotson grabbed a deputy and refused to let go. She denies it.
Deputies arrested Dotson and two other family members who tried to help. One was a 20-year-old relative, who tried to move a decorative vase out of the way. Deputies said they were worried the woman was going to attack them with the vase. The other was Dotson’s son, who deputies said tried pulling them off her. None of them had been arrested before, they said. They all deny the allegations.
Multiple deputies detained Da’Marion, even as Dotson explained that he is sensitive to touch. The teenager had a meltdown.
The Sheriff’s Office called an ambulance for Da’Marion and had him taken for a psychiatric evaluation under Florida’s Baker Act. He was later arrested on auto theft charges.
Months later, Dotson still feels unsafe. “Everywhere we go, they follow us around,” she said. “They sit here on the corner in unmarked cars like we don’t know their faces.”
In the last five years, Pasco County sheriff’s deputies checked on people on the list and their families more than 12,500 times.