Organizers Call on Florida Gov. Scott to Rein in Polk County Sheriff
As residents of Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas prepare themselves for the destructive impact of Hurricane Irma over the weekend, one county sheriff has decided to the seize the opportunity to arrest more people. On Wednesday, Polk County, Florida Sheriff Grady Judd took to Twitter to warn his followers that his deputies would be checking IDs at the county’s emergency shelters and taking anyone with an open warrant straight to “the safe and secure shelter called the Polk County Jail.” Judd also noted that “sex offenders/predators will not be allowed” in the shelters, and that anyone with an open warrant should simply turn themselves in at the jail. Everybody wins, right?
Carrie Eleazer Horstman, the Sheriff’s public information officer, told In Justice Today that a photo I.D. is not a prerequisite to gain admission to the shelters, and that Polk County residents without I.D. will not be turned away. However, Horstman said, “We’ll figure out another way to identify them.”
The Sheriff’s warnings attracted ample criticism from fellow Twitter users, who pointed out that warrants can be opened for low-level offenses such as unpaid traffic tickets, and argued that his tweet put lives at risk by effectively discouraging people from seeking a safe place to wait out the storm.
“[Sheriff Judd] is jeopardizing [law enforcement] officers’ lives and some of the community’s lives by prioritizing open warrants over immediate public safety,” Andrew Ferguson, a criminal law professor at the University of the District of Columbia’s law school told In Justice Today. “If you’re diverting [law enforcement] resources to check I.D.s, it means you’re not helping people who might be in immediate danger.”
The county, which is en route from Tampa to Orlando, is directly in the forecasted path of the storm. On Friday, the county’s emergency management director issued a voluntary evacuation to all residents encouraging them to seek cover in emergency shelters. According to Polk County’s own publicly available map of flood zones, the county’s two central jails are in the Flood Zones A and AE, which are designated the most at-risk of flooding, according to FEMA.
Horstman said there are currently no plans to evacuate the jail, and that when three hurricanes passed through the county in 2004, the jails did not flood. “If that changes, we will definitely safely and securely transport inmates elsewhere,” Horstman added, noting that an additional jail in the south part of the county could accommodate extra inmates if an evacuation became necessary.
Beyond the safety of people who may have open warrants or names on the sex offender registry, activists are concerned that I.D. checks at shelters could discourage undocumented immigrants from seeking cover from the storm. On Thursday, the Florida Immigration Coalition (FLIC) sent a letter to Gov. Rick Scott asking that he “make an official statement to assure Floridians that they will be safe wherever they should seek shelter.”
Horstman, when asked about the I.D. checks, told In Justice Today that “we are not turning away any illegals.”
Other organizations, such as Color of Change, have echoed FLIC’s call to Gov. Scott.
“At a time like this, the safety of every Floridian should be a priority,” said Scott Roberts, Senior Criminal Justice Campaigns Director for Color of Change. “If Grady Judd is going to invest resources in locking people up at a time like this, someone like the Governor needs to step in and stop him from putting lives in danger just to fill his prison cells.”