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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

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.

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.”

Lawsuit: Manhattan D.A.’s Office Tracks Cops With ‘Credibility’ Problems, But Refuses To Release Its List

The office has criticized the NYPD for shielding officers’ misconduct histories, but it won’t share its own information on police dishonesty.

District Attorney Cy Vance
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Lawsuit: Manhattan D.A.’s Office Tracks Cops With ‘Credibility’ Problems, But Refuses To Release Its List

The office has criticized the NYPD for shielding officers’ misconduct histories, but it won’t share its own information on police dishonesty.

In July, the Manhattan district attorney’s office blasted the New York City Police Department over its refusal to share information on officers’ misconduct records with prosecutors pretrial. The office argued such information—which speaks to the credibility of police officers—is critical for prosecutors seeking to vet their witnesses and decide whether and how to charge a case.

But a new court petition, filed Monday, presents evidence that the Manhattan DA’s office keeps its own internal records on police officers with questionable credibility, and is refusing to disclose this information to defense attorneys and the public at large.

Access to such information could prevent wrongful incarceration, defense attorneys argue, because plea deals—how 97 percent of felony cases that result in convictions are settled in New York City—often turn on police officer testimony. Although prosecutors are technically required to disclose exculpatory material about officers that could help the defense under the Supreme Court decision Brady v. Maryland, defense attorneys argue these disclosures are seldom exhaustive and can be legally submitted weeks before trial starts, long after plea negotiations may have ended.

“The release of these names would impact the plea bargaining process in significant ways,” said Bennett Gershman, a Pace University law professor and former Manhattan prosecutor.

“Right now it’s a crapshoot for defense attorneys. They don’t know what a prosecutor has.”

The petition, filed by Andrew Stengel, a defense attorney and former Manhattan prosecutor, requests the DA’s office turn over a list he asserts it has of police officers with any indication of “adverse credibility findings” since Jan. 1, 2017. As evidence of the list’s existence, he points to a February 2018 trial for one of his clients during which the Manhattan DA’s deputy bureau chief, Jeffrey Levinson, publicly stated, “We have a list of officers where we—that have adverse credibility findings, that have been found to have testified falsely.”

According to the suit, Levinson’s statement didn’t surprise Stengel, who since 2014 had been aware of such a list, known colloquially to his then-colleagues within the Manhattan DA’s office as the “naughty list.”  

Judges issue adverse credibility findings when they have found officers’ testimony to be untruthful. In a 2011 speech, District Attorney Cy Vance said the agency routinely reviewedall circumstances in which the credibility of a police officer is called into question.” According to Vance, “Every judicial adverse credibility finding is investigated to determine whether disclosure is warranted when the officer testifies in the future.” How the office chooses which officers warrant future disclosures and how this information is consolidated internally remains unclear.

In March, Stengel filed a Freedom of Information Law request asking for the list, but the DA’s office denied his request, saying that it does not have a “list” as defined by his request. “While this office does maintain information regarding a court’s ‘adverse credibility finding,’” the denial states, “these records are prepared in anticipation of litigation and are thus exempt from disclosure.”

Stengel appealed the ruling, to no avail, so he decided to file his suit. “The very purpose of the list is for the adverse credibility findings of police officers to be disclosed by the DA’s Office to defendants,” the petition argues, noting that the office’s claim to have information but not a “list” is a “semantic decision without a meaningful difference.”

The DA’s office declined to comment on the petition by publication time.

A similar battle is playing out in Los Angeles over a sheriff’s list of tainted cops, where the police officer’s union is working to prevent the release of the list to prosecutors. Earlier this year, Philadelphia prosecutors released such a list under court order, after the Philadelphia Inquirer reported on its existence. The public defender’s office reportedly filed more than 6,000 petitions for new trials as a result. Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner is also reportedly in the process of developing a more comprehensive list than his predecessor’s, as well as a new protocol for sharing information with defense attorneys.

Following news about Philadelphia’s list, The Appeal filed a Freedom of Information Law request asking the Manhattan DA’s office to turn over any of its own records on police officers with “histories of lying, fabricating evidence, or engaging in misconduct.” But the office has not yet responded to that request.

This petition is not the first time Vance’s office has been accused of operating without transparency. The office has been criticized for failing to adopt open file discovery policies, which make documents available after arraignment in other jurisdictions, like Brooklyn. And last week, the Daily News reported that the FBI is looking into the office’s alleged dropping of wealthy clients’ cases after receiving donations from defense attorneys.

Though it is unclear what information is maintained in the Manhattan DA’s adverse credibility records, Eliza Orlins, a Legal Aid Society staff attorney, said access to officer names could inform her pretrial strategy. A New York Times investigation published in March revealed the prevalence of “testilying,” when police officers fabricate their witness statements. If a flagged cop were testifying about one of her clients, Orlins says she could do further research on the officer and then argue for a dismissal.

Currently, Orlins says that officer misconduct disclosures by prosecutors are rare, and defense attorneys are forced to pool together their own bits of information. “I’ll report back when a cop is found uncredible at a hearing, or accused of other misconduct,” she explained. “But it’s hard for us to know about all of it.”

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Program Meant To Fight Terrorism and Narcotrafficking Is Being Used to Target The Undocumented Community

Opposition to Operation Stonegarden, however, is spreading; one Arizona county just rejected over $1 million of its funds.

Jorge Arroyo and his family in Texas this month.
Debbie Nathan

Program Meant To Fight Terrorism and Narcotrafficking Is Being Used to Target The Undocumented Community

Opposition to Operation Stonegarden, however, is spreading; one Arizona county just rejected over $1 million of its funds.

On Feb. 7, air conditioning repairers Jorge Arroyo, 31, and his brother Inés were out on the job in Aransas County, Texas, about 150 miles southeast of San Antonio along the Gulf of Mexico. At noon, they piled into their truck to get lunch. When they approached a cafe, an Aransas County sheriff’s deputy stopped them and said the license plate on the truck was dirty and unreadable. The deputy also said Inés had failed to signal when he made a turn.

Inés, a legal resident of the U.S., showed his Texas driver’s license to the deputy. But then the deputy focused on Jorge and asked for a Texas ID. Even though people in the U.S. who aren’t driving a vehicle or suspected of a crime can refuse to produce identification, Jorge displayed his ID card from Mexico. The deputy then asked if he was in the U.S. illegally. After Jorge shook his head and said that he was not in the country legally, the deputy handcuffed him and called the Border Patrol.


Jorge has been in the U.S. for 12 years. He and his partner have two Texas-born daughters, and he was supporting his family with a steady job in the heating and cooling business. But within minutes of encountering the sheriff’s deputy, he was locked up at the Aransas County jail, awaiting transfer to ICE detention.   

As Jorge sat behind bars, the deputy filled out an “Intelligence/Significant Event Report” form  that was then handed over to a FEMA-funded and Border Patrol-administered program called Operation Stonegarden. In operation by 2004, Operation Stonegarden received $85 million this year for distribution to state troopers, sheriff’s deputies, constables, and city and tribal police. As of February the program was operating in 157 counties mostly on and near the southern border, purportedly to assist Border Patrol in combating serious, border-related crime such as narcotrafficking and terrorism.

Local law enforcement, however, appears to use Operation Stonegarden to round up undocumented immigrants like Jorge. It’s difficult to quantify how often the program is utilized to arrest undocumented people because Border Patrol instructs law enforcement to refuse open records requests for such data. But there is no doubt that the program’s funds have been used to target the undocumented community. In 2007, Otero County, New Mexico, and its sheriff were sued for working during Operation Stonegarden-paid time to illegally interrogate low-income Latinx people about their immigration status and to search homes for undocumented immigrants. In 2008, a federal judge issued an injunction forbidding use of Stonegarden resources in this manner. In 2009, concerns about racial profiling prompted the sheriff of Jefferson County, Washington, to refuse Operation Stonegarden funds. Concerned that his officers’ Operation Stonegarden work could damage relations with the Latinx community, the police chief of Indio, California, cut ties with the program in 2012.

Due in large part to open records request refusals, secrecy still surrounds Operation Soundgarden. Even immigration rights advocates know little about the program. That was true for years in Pima County, Arizona, which has more than one million residents and is the state’s second most populous county.

But in February, ACLU of Arizona attorney Billy Peard attended a Pima County Board of Supervisors meeting and noticed that grants for $1.4 million for Operation Stonegarden were on the agenda. The county received funds from the program for 12 years—in addition to the sheriff, six police departments participated. Peard spoke against Operation Stonegarden during the public comment period, and supervisor Richard Elias, a Democrat, urged rejection of its funds. The board quickly voted against it.  Two weeks later the board reinstated the grants pending review of possible problems with Stonegarden, including racial profiling. As the review played out over the following months, the community learned how the program’s funds have little oversight, fuel significant overtime spending for police, and are often used for activity unrelated to border security, such as crowd control at parades, soccer games, and funerals.

While Pima County reviewed Operation Stonegarden in the spring and summer,  Peard contacted labor, faith-based, and civil rights activists to pressure the Board of Supervisors to reject the program.  Because of the furor surrounding Trump administration’s separations of immigrant families, anti-Operation Stonegarden sentiment had grown to the point where the Board of Supervisors voted against using $1.4 million in grant funds in September.  It was an unprecedented rejection of the program for a county as large as Pima.

No political opposition has surfaced in Aransas County, where Jorge Arroyo was turned over to Border Patrol. In February, he paid $4,000 bond to be released from ICE custody pending a removal hearing scheduled for next year plus $2,500 for a lawyer. It was  money he was saving to buy a house for his family. Operation Stonegarden killed that dream, and now his hopes are simply focused on not being deported.

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