"If you go to a shelter for #Irma and you have a warrant, we'll gladly escort you to the safe and secure shelter called the Polk County jail," warned Florida's Polk County Sheriff's Department Twitter Account as Category 5 Hurricane Irma made landfall on September 6, 2017. Minutes earlier, the sheriff's office tweeted that officers would be stationed at every shelter and that "sex offenders/predators" would not be given shelter during the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic.
These two stunning law enforcement warnings divided the community between people who are worthy of saving and those who are not. Rather than "protecting and serving," the sheriff's department put thousands of lives in danger.
In 2011, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement had more than 100,000 active warrants for felony offenses, according to the Miami Herald. Florida's largest counties had significant backlogs of outstanding warrants. Palm Beach County, for example, had 58,000 outstanding warrants, while another 219,000 were outstanding in Broward County. Although some of those warrants were for serious offenses, the overwhelming majority were for misdemeanors, traffic offenses, failing to appear in court, and unpaid court fees.
"If you believe, as I do, that sanctity of human life is the single most important priority for policing--that public safety is at the core of policing--then discouraging people from going to shelters because they have a warrant is a betrayal of those fundamental values," said Seth Stoughton, a former police officer and current University of South Carolina law professor specializing in policing issues. Not only did the sheriff's Tweet put the targeted people in danger, it "put the officers and other first responders who are going to have to rescue them in danger," said Stoughton. "It puts their families and their dependents in danger."
A resident might not even realize he or she has an outstanding warrant until arrested at a shelter, notes Stoughton. "Is arresting those people really the best use of police resources in an evacuation situation?" Stoughton asked. "Even they are still members of the community that officers are supposed to be serving and protecting."
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