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This Florida County’s Sheriff Is Controversial. But His Election Won’t Be Close.

The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office stands accused of violating immigrants’ rights and dismissing a shocking number of jail deaths.

Photo Illustration by Anagraph / Photo via Chad Chronister Twitter

The Appeal is spotlighting sheriffs across the country who are seeking re-election on Nov. 6. The rest of the series will be available here.

It was 2 a.m. on Dec. 3, 2011, when Allison Bredbenner finally got off the phone with her child’s father after a three-hour call.  The two were in the middle of a custody battle, and Bredbenner took an Ambien to try to get some rest. But the respite would not be long.

At 4 a.m., she awoke to the sounds of three Hillsborough County Sheriff’s officers and three fire and rescue employees breaking through her window and entering her room. They seized her son, who was screaming in confusion, and arrested her for child neglect, according to a later lawsuit filed by Bredbenner. The child’s father had called police after their phone call, claiming he had seen her passed out on the floor with the child crawling around. They found the mother and child sleeping in bed, not on the floor. Bredbenner offered to show the officers court documentation about their custody battle and repeatedly asked to take a breathalyzer or drug test to prove she was not intoxicated. But they arrested her anyway and put her in jail for a day. Though her charges were later dropped, the pending felony resulting from the arrest meant that Bredbenner temporarily lost custody of her child.

The officers, however, did not appear to face any consequences. Though Bredbenner later sued them for false arrest, and a district and an appeals court later found they did not have probable cause for the arrest, in the years following the incident, at least two of the three officers appear to have stayed on the force. (The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to The Appeal’s request for information about what consequences the officers faced, if any).

Deputies’ treatment of civilians like Bredbenner is one of many issues that could figure in the November election for Hillsborough County sheriff. The election should be a big deal because the county is home to 1.4 million residents, covering much of the Tampa area. Though activists have criticized the office’s record, the election already feels like a foregone conclusion to locals.

The coronation

The far and away front runner for the sheriff’s race, Chad Chronister, is a department veteran and the hand-picked successor of former sheriff David Gee. Last year, less than a year into his fourth term, Gee suddenly retired and recommended that Florida’s Republican governor, Rick Scott, appoint Chronister, then a colonel, to take the interim sheriff’s position till the 2018 election.

Chronister “was unknown to most residents when he was anointed by Sheriff David Gee as his successor,” said Darryl Paulson, professor emeritus of government at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Gee’s retirement gave Chronister the distinct advantage of being an incumbent with name recognition, Paulson noted in an email.

On top of this institutional backing, Chronister is in a league of his own when it comes to campaign financing. Powered by his marriage into the DeBartolo family, former owners of the San Francisco 49ers, Chronister’s political action committee alone has raised over $1 million, setting a new record for a Hillsborough race.

Prisoner left to die

Last year, Zarah Jackson, 62, was found in his Hillsborough County Jail cell, unconscious and lying in a pool of blood. Two weeks earlier, Jackson, who had mental health issues, complained about his prisoner uniform and  got into an altercation with a jail deputy. After Jackson shouted curses and flailed his arms, a group of guards tackled him, slamming his face onto the concrete floor. He was moved to a clinic then had a disciplinary hearing, where he was given 30 days in solitary confinement. This would prove to be a death sentence.

Over the next week, Jackson was shifted from a hospital to a jail infirmary, and finally back to solitary confinement. The jail’s medical provider gave him blood-thinning medications he was not supposed to have. Over a week later, he was found comatose in his cell and never woke up. His family took him off life support. He died on Feb. 3, 2017.

Jackson’s death was one of numerous prisoner deaths exposed in a July Tampa Bay Times investigation, which dug into the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office’s troubling opacity regarding custody jail deaths. Though authorities said publicly that six inmates had died in custody in the last three years, the Tampa Bay Times independently uncovered 13 other deaths.

Additionally, the paper found at that least 42 people have died in its jails over the last decade. And there may be more deaths. The Times found that the sheriff’s office failed to keep thorough documentation of prisoner deaths, and did not always communicate with families over how their loved ones have died.

Of the 42 deaths that the Times identified, not one resulted in criminal charges or disciplinary actions against guards or other inmates, even though three of these deaths (including Jackson’s) were ruled to be homicides. When asked about Jackson’s death, Colonel Michael Perotti, who was overseeing the county’s jails at the time, said he saw “nothing malicious, inappropriate, or violent about it.” Perotti continued, “It was a textbook takedown, the inmate was immediately assessed by medical, and when things began going south a few weeks down the road, he was immediately taken to the ER.

As interim sheriff, Chronister has signaled publicly that he is committed to transparency but does not believe the department’s handling of jail deaths require a major overhaul. After the Tampa Bay Times investigation uncovering additional deaths, Chronister responded, “We know the number. … We just don’t have one place to go look.” The department, officials said in July, will release a database of prisoner deaths and make them known to the public via news releases.

Helping ICE deport residents

The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office has also taken heat from activists for  working with ICE. Though the Tampa Bay area, which Hillsborough County partially covers, is home to one of the largest concentrations of undocumented immigrants in the country, Chronister agreed to jail undocumented immigrants for two days after they have posted bail, facilitating ICE’s ability to nab them. In January, he stood side by side with then-ICE director Thomas Homan, and a fellow sheriff, to announce the new initiative, which was designed to give sheriff’s a stronger legal rationale to hold immigrants for federal immigration authorities.

Civil liberties advocates argue that such agreements still violate immigrants’ constitutional rights, by holding them without due process and sometimes without any charges pending. And immigrants’ rights groups blasted Chronister for taking ICE’s money in exchange for holding residents to facilitate removals. At a protest in February, Rev. Dr. Russell L. Meyer, pastor at Tampa’s St. Paul Lutheran Church and executive director for the Florida Council of Churches, declared, “What I’m being asked to do in order to be a law abiding citizen of Tampa and Hillsborough County … is to give my taxes to law enforcement so they can break up families.”

Chronister publicly endorsed the deal, even though it could open the county up to lawsuits. Under Trump, ICE has issued new instructions to local jailers, asking them to hold anyone they believe can be removed, rather than certain undocumented immigrants, based on prior convictions.

At the February rally, another attendee, Girsea Martinez-Rosas, said her father had been unfairly deported in 2008 and told the crowd that Chronister would pay for the agreement at the polls. “We will ensure that all voters know Sheriff Chad Chronister is complicit with Trump’s mass deportation machine come November,” she said.

But few expect the race to even be close. As the Tampa Bay Times noted, the sheriff’s office has not had a competitive race since 1964. One opponent dropped out in May, after raising only a few hundred dollars. Another, who rails against the department’s “good old boy system,” had raised only $3,310 as of June, according to the Times.

Paulson, the former professor, said he “would anticipate changes from Chronister, but not quantum changes” when it comes to the office’s treatment of prisoners. The new sheriff will want “to establish his own identity,” he said, but he is “smart enough to know that radical changes often get politicians into trouble.”