Palm Beach County residents encouraged to report neighbors who “hate” the government


The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s department has received $1 million for a violence prevention unit that is getting attention from privacy advocates. Florida legislators awarded the money to Sheriff Ric Bradshaw to create the unit with the idea that they will be able to prevent gun tragedies from occurring. Bradshaw intends on utilizing specially trained deputies and mental health professionals in the prevention of crimes.

“Every single incident, whether it’s Newtown, that movie theater, or the guy who spouts off at work and then goes home and kills his wife and two kids — in every single case, there were people who said they knew ahead of time that there was a problem,” Bradshaw said. “If the neighbor of the mom in Newtown had called somebody, this might have saved 25 kids’ lives.”

Bradshaw is readying a hotline and is planning public service announcements to encourage local citizens to report their neighbors, friends or family members if they fear they could harm themselves or others.

While the deputies and mental health workers might be able to spot a problem, the vast majority of people do not see the warning signs until after an incident occurs.

The goal won’t be to arrest troubled people but to get them help before there’s violence, Bradshaw said. As a side benefit, law enforcement will have needed information to keep a close eye on things.

On paper, this appears to be a noble cause, but if there is nothing wrong with a person, how is keeping a close eye on anyone a benefit? It raises Stasi comparisons, something no American should ever strive for.

“We want people to call us if the guy down the street says he hates the government, hates the mayor and he’s gonna shoot him,” Bradshaw said. “What does it hurt to have somebody knock on a door and ask, ‘Hey, is everything OK?’”

No. You do not want to call the police because someone says they hate the government. Many Americans do not like their government, but they have the right to espouse that view. You even have the right to say you hate your mayor, congressman, or anyone else and wish them dead. If one takes a moment to think, they have probably voiced those opinions out loud [12 angry men], but out of frustration and never with any real intent. Now, if that person says, “I hate the mayor and I’m going to shoot him,” while holding a shotgun, then you might want to call the police. In this case, a new crime prevention unit is not needed because people already do this.

It hurts people to go knock on a door and ask if everything is okay because people do not want others butting into other people’s business for something that was said, especially when the person reporting it doesn’t have the qualifications to determine intent. It undermines free speech and creates a climate of fear where dissent can be easily misinterpreted and people are put under suspicion for no reason.

That’s enough for Senate budget chief Joe Negron, R-Stuart, who helped push through the funding last weekend.

He said he met with Bradshaw about the program and “got assurances from the sheriff that this is going to be done in a way that respects people’s autonomy and privacy, and that he makes sure to protect against people making false claims.”

If he got assurances, then why doesn’t he list what they are so that everyone can see if those assurances are valid or not? How does the sheriff intend to protect innocent people from making false claims? Saying there are assurances to protect people indicates that something has been discussed, so why isn’t it out in the open?

Mental health advocates, however, worry about a potential new source of stigma, and the potential for erosion of the civil rights of people with mental illnesses.

It is not just citizens with mental illnesses that have to be worried about being stigmatized. Anyone who is suspected of not liking the government is going to be forced to talk to a mental health professional. This information may or may not be public. If the person is taken in for questioning, neighbors are likely to make conclusions about what is happening, making life difficult for the person questioned. If any of this is made into the public record, the person could have problems later on finding a job. Those who do have mental illnesses could also be singled out merely because they are different.

“How are they possibly going to watch everybody who makes a comment like that? It’s subjective,” said Liz Downey, executive director of the Palm Beach County branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “We don’t want to take away people’s civil liberties just because people aren’t behaving the way we think they should be.”

It is impossible to watch everyone unless you resort to Stasi-like tactics and Soviet-style political commissars and get every citizen to report on each other. What will happen is the police will have a database of people that they have harassed for no reason, yet still may continue to “keep an eye on” while those that may truly have criminal intentions keeps quiet and falls into whatever the police think is socially acceptable. Not everyone behaves the same. Some people have quirks that are not harmful at all, yet others might find it weird and report a person for being different.

Bradshaw acknowledged the risk that anyone in a messy divorce or in a dispute with a neighbor could abuse the hotline. But, he said, he’s confident that his trained professionals will know how to sort out fact from fiction.

“We know how to sift through frivolous complaints,” he said.

Obviously, the police can’t figure out all the frivolous items. There are several instances of SWAT teams being called in after a fake 911 call because an individual online 911 said that person X is at home making a bomb right, there’s a domestic assault happening, or any number of other things. This phenomenon is called “swatting” and it has serious repercussions for the person that is made a suspect.

The police also cannot distinguish right away if a person is simply a target through a messy divorce without going to that person’s house and performing their version of the “are you okay” spiel. Again, they must actually go and disrupt this person’s life, with others watching and jumping to conclusions, in order to sort fact from fiction.

Also, after troubled people are identified by Bradshaw’s teams, then what? Who will pay for their care? The state? Medicaid? The county? The Palm Beach County Public Defender has a good program to ensure qualified people apply for the Social Security and Medicaid benefits they may need, she said. Some high-level conversations have started, but more are needed, Berner added.

No one really knows what they’re going to do with people that need help. Another question not being asked is how long are the people going to be kept under surveillance? How long will their names be kept in the database that is going to be made? If the police ask if you’re okay and you say you’re fine and tell them to go away, currently your right, what happens next? Are they put on a “keep an eye on” list? There are far too many questions that haven’t been answered or even looked at. We’re just supposed to take one man’s assurances that he’ll do the right thing. How many people will be caught up in this unit and have their lives ruined until the sheriff gets everything sorted out?



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