2021 The Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, Medium Newsroom winner


Judges comments

Jaw-dropping law enforcement overreach and the reporting team’s understanding of the power of seemingly benign data deliver this series with power. The impact this will have on the 1,000+ people who have been surveilled and possibly long-term reform for data mining citizens for projected crime will be felt.

About the Project

Sheriff Chris Nocco addresses the media during a press conference held at the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office on Thursday, December 22, 2016.

A decade ago, Sheriff Chris Nocco introduced a new, data-driven initiative that would proactively combat crime in Pasco County, Florida.

It wasn’t until Tampa Bay Times reporters Kathleen McGrory and Neil Bedi began to dig that anyone learned what it really meant and how it worked.

The Sheriff’s Office had invented an algorithm to predict which residents might break the law. It then assigned deputies to continuously monitor and harass them.

In the last five years, the department used the formula to target nearly 1,000 people with tactics former deputies said were meant to make them move out of the county or file a lawsuit. At least 1 in 10 were younger than 18.

Dalanea Taylor, 20, with her two-year-old twins, Freedom Taylor, left, and Liberty Taylor, at their home on Thursday, June 18, 2020, in New Port Richey. Dalanea is among a list of Pasco County residents being monitored by Pasco Sheriff’s deputies as part of the intelligence led policing program.

Deputies showed up at their homes repeatedly, often without probable cause, a warrant or even evidence of a crime. They fined one target’s mother $2,500 for keeping chickens in a backyard coup. They fined another for overgrown grass. They came at all hours, including early on New Year’s Day to roust and harass a woman who had done nothing wrong. They arrested another target’s grandmother, alleging she had interfered when they came looking for her developmentally disabled grandson. They visited one teenage boy over and over, even though juvenile justice officials had documented his risk of suicide. He took his life at 16.

The reporters also discovered the department had kept a secret list of schoolchildren it considered likely to “fall into a life of crime” based on their grades, school attendance records and child welfare histories. The children and their parents were not informed. Before the Times started asking questions, even the schools superintendent didn’t know his own district’s data was being used this way.

Top national experts called the sheriff’s intelligence programs “morally repugnant” and “everything that’s wrong with policing.” One likened his practices to child abuse.