TAMPA – Members of an organization in central Florida established to support minorities and poor people who have suffered racial injustices say a sheriff’s office sent undercover deputies to spy on their meeting.
The Poor and Minority Justice Association, based in Polk County, provided The Associated Press with an email Thursday that it said was acquired through a public records request. The email, dated July 2012, was ostensibly written by an undercover Polk Sheriff’s deputy and sent to two top officials within the department.
In the email, the officer allegedly wrote that “detectives acted in an undercover capacity to gain intel during the meeting,” which was held on July 27, 2012, at a building leased by the Church of God The Bibleway in Winter Haven. The pastor of that church and head of the justice association, Clayton Cowart, provided the email. The AP could not independently verify its contents.
A spokeswoman for Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, Carrie Eleazer, said Thursday that she could not comment on the email, and declined to say whether or why the undercover detectives were at the meeting.
In a statement to The Lakeland Ledger published Thursday evening, Judd said that his office had information from what it considered a credible source that the group was planning some sort of lawlessness at a rally scheduled to be held in late July 2012 at the Central Polk County Jail.
“Every day, our crime prevention message is, ‘If you see something, say something,”’ Judd was quoted by the newspaper as saying. “Our first responsibility is to prevent crime. We had an obligation to check it out.”
The two-page email shown to the AP was ostensibly an overview of what went on at the meeting. It mentioned that the Poor and Minority Justice Association is “associated” with the Dream Defenders, a group formed in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting.
The email said various groups were planning on protesting at a Polk County Jail over the sheriff office’s placement of juveniles in adult correctional facilities and noted that a planning meeting was scheduled for the following day at Polk State College.
“Approximately 25-30 people attended the meeting,” said the email, from which the name of the writer was omitted. “During the meeting, residents spoke and told stories of how they believe they were abused by law enforcement.”
The writer noted that “Cowart and the organization are obviously anti-law enforcement and are against Sheriff Judd.” Cowart, 41, said he was stunned to think that undercover deputies had come to the meeting he organized.
“I’m thinking, ‘What do they think I am, a terrorist?”’ he said Thursday. “Am I going to blow up the world with Bibles? We happen to be dissatisfied with some of the procedures and practices at the sheriff’s department, particularly racial profiling of African Americans and Hispanics.”
Cowart said he would have had no problem if the deputies had introduced themselves as law enforcement officers.
“I would have told them, ‘Welcome. We don’t have a problem with you being here,”’ he said.
Bruce Jacob, a constitutional law professor at Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport, said that because the meeting was open to the public and in a “semi-public” building, the sheriff’s office probably didn’t violate the group’s rights against unreasonable or warrantless searches.
“But much worse than that, it’s infringing on their freedom of speech,” Jacob said. “It sounds like Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia. It’s the last thing that should happen in a democracy like ours.”
Judd was recently elected president of the Florida Sheriff’s Association. He has gained national attention over the years for his office’s aggressive undercover stings against people who download child pornography on their computers.
He also ordered the arrest under Florida’s obscenity laws of a Colorado man who wrote a how-to guide for pedophiles, saying he had jurisdiction because the guide could be accessed online in Polk County. That man later pleaded no contest and received two years’ probation.