MIAMI, FL — There’s an old joke that gets a lot of use in central Florida: the most dangerous place in Polk County is between Sheriff Grady Judd and a television camera.
The long-time sheriff is well-known for his love of the media spotlight—especially when he’s dealing with what he’s called his “favorite topic,” crimes against children and men who he deems sexual perverts.
Last week, Judd held one of his frequent press conferences to tout the arrests of 132 men who he said had tried to lure children into having sex. Or re-tout the arrests, actually—all of them had been announced before. The sheriff just felt like having a presser. Which meant that Noah Pransky, an investigative reporter for WTSP, a local Gannett-owned station, had an opportunity to ask an interesting question: “Sheriff, is it fair to point the finger at these men and call them sexual perverts when some of the charges have already been dropped?”
Pransky was about to roll out out an impressive investigation that raised a lot more interesting questions about the tactics deployed by the Internet Crimes Against Children task force headed by Judd. Among the findings: the task force skirts federal guidelines to target men on legal websites, looking for legal hook-ups with consenting adults. Judges have dismissed cases brought by the task force, citing entrapment concerns. Law enforcement in some other jurisdictions has moved away from these stings, seeing them as a waste of resources. And like some other agency heads, Judd—who is explicit that public shaming is part of his enforcement strategy, even when charges don’t stick—refuses to release records showing how the stings are conducted, on the grounds that men who have communicated with undercover officers remain “under investigation.”
Some in the TV news industry are known for “To Catch a Predator”-style programming, and Judd has been happy to bring them along on his stings. But Pransky flipped the dynamic around—and made a pretty compelling case that Judd is using the media to publicly shame men who posed no threat, and in some cases are outright innocent.
In the second part of his investigation, Pransky found that only three percent of the 1,200 men arrested since 2008 had prior arrests for sexual crimes. And he summed up his own case against the sheriff, arguing that Judd “has created—and promoted—a culture that prioritizes press conferences and public humiliation over due process and constitutional rights.”
Pransky told me he was first contacted a couple years ago by two men who said they were entrapped and had done nothing wrong.
“I didn’t believe them,” he said. “The jail is full of people who swear they’re innocent.”
But he began to wonder about the press conferences.
“When law enforcement arrests these guys, they make sure everyone knows about it,” he said. When he started to ask around, he found that some police agencies, including the much larger ones in South Florida, and even some closer to Polk County, long ago stopped doing the sting operations.
Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco said he doesn’t like internet sting operations because the men swept up in them rarely get much time in jail, often, Pransky found, because prosecutors and judges don’t deem them a real threat. “You spend your resources, you arrest somebody and then they walk right out. It’s the biggest waste ever,” Nocco said.
As he combed through press releases and court filings for more than a thousand cases, Pransky also found numerous examples of local judges throwing out charges. One judge wrote, “The law does not tolerate government action to provoke a law-abiding citizen to commit a crime.”
Pransky’s investigation got immediate results, with the local head of the American Civil Liberties Union calling for a federal investigation. The ICAC task forces are funded by the federal government.
The stories also prompted a vigorous debate on WTSP’s Facebook page, with some commenters calling for Judd’s stings to stop while others insisted any effort to protect children was worth it. Pransky knew from the start he was wading into controversial waters.
“It’s a touchy subject because in no way are we defending sex offenders and in no way are we saying they should go light on sex offenders,” he told me.
But the men caught up in these stings face potentially lifelong stigmatization, even when charges are ultimately dropped by prosecutors or thrown out by judges. Their mugshots and the nature of the alleged crimes are often readily available online—thanks in part to Florida’s strong public records law—and Judd’s press conferences ensure their neighbors know what they were accused of.
Even when convictions were sustained, Pransky raises questions about whether justice was served. He spoke with the heartbroken mother of one man, convicted after a sting conducted on an adults personals page, in which an undercover agent at one point claimed to be 13 years old but also offered a photo of a woman wearing a wedding ring. She said of her son, now labeled a sex offender, “He had a life of promise; he had an education…. That’s all been shot.”
Pransky chose to withhold the woman’s name, and the name of her son. In fact, his reports don’t name any of the men swept up in Judd’s stings. He said that was his call, but that his bosses at the station supported the decision.
“It would have been hypocritical to do a story about press conferences exploiting law-abiding men, and then us doing the same thing,” he said. “If some were entrapped, it was our duty to withhold their names and protect their image, in case they were innocent.”
The Poynter Institute’s Kelly McBride, a staunch advocate of the public’s right to know practically everything, agreed with Pransky’s decision.
“The biggest negative effect most of these people have experienced is the public shaming,” she said. “The journalistic purpose of this story is to hold the sheriff accountable.”
That’s a purpose other journalists might take up by looking into similar stories. As sheriffs elsewhere seek publicity for internet stings, there may be questions about entrapment and due process, and also just effective use of public resources. WCJB* in Gainesville recently reported that the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office and the Gainesville Police Department had a falling out because the Sheriff’s Office wanted more press conferences. The result: dueling task forces that may violate the terms of federal grants.
In Polk County and elsewhere, there are of course dangerous sex offenders, and police are right to go after them—some of the men Judd’s task force arrested were allegedly in possession of child pornography. But reporters should dig deeper, use their judgment, and understand how authorities can attempt to use the media to shame potentially innocent individuals.
*Correction: This story originally misstated the name of the Gainesville TV station. CJR regrets the error.