These are crazy and dangerous times. People, innocent people, get shot ringing doorbells, opening the wrong car door, or pulling into the wrong driveway. A little girl was shot by an angry neighbor after a ball rolled onto his lawn. It’s a disturbing trend that defies explanation.
And it happened right here in Citrus County when a group of young people rode their ATVs in Citrus Springs. A grown man shot one of them in the stomach as they rode past his home.
It happened on a Saturday night. One of our community’s children, shot by someone who didn’t like them driving past his home. Shooting, teenagers, and an arrest…something that in most jurisdictions would have prompted a press release, a press conference, or some form of announcement from law enforcement.
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None of these things happened in Citrus County. In fact, we heard about the incident from citizens who wanted to know what was going on. We reported the information by checking into the courthouse and obtaining the probable cause statement on the arrest long before the sheriff sent us the same document. It wasn’t until Wednesday evening that the sheriff’s office released more information about the shooting, and it wasn’t until a series of questions were sent to the sheriff asking for more information.
I wrote a column last week noting all of this. Sheriff Mike Prendergast didn’t like or agree with what I had to say.
His response on this page is a bit on the personal side. I don’t believe in that type of behavior so I stick to the facts. Life is easier that way. In fact, if you haven’t read it yet, stop reading this, read his response, and come back here. That will probably make more sense. It’s okay, I’ll wait.
Department of Community Affairs
The sheriff seems to imply that I demeaned the community relations department that works for him. Nothing could be further from the truth. My attitude towards employees, including my own, is that almost everyone wakes up in the morning and wants to go to work and do a good job. It is the person at the top of most organizations who sets the tone and expectations. I believe so does the sheriff’s office. I assume the people who work there are doing exactly what the sheriff wants them to do.
The sheriff wrote that he has “severely limited resources.” CCSO has three full-time Community Relations Specialists. You decide for yourself whether it is the right number. That answer is between the sheriff, the county commission that approves his budget, and you, the people who foot the bill.
Speaking of paying the bill…
Sheriff Prendergast attacked the paper (and me) for having some nefarious “for profit” motive for asking questions and seeking public information. Of course, we are a private company, like 99 percent of all media in America. He is wrong to think that our reporters and editors are involved in the revenue part of the business. We don’t make decisions about what to cover and what to ask for based on revenue. But he’s right that our readers help pay the bills. People choose to buy our paper. They give us their money in exchange for a service. Last I checked free enterprise was a good thing.
Are you paying for the sheriff’s Facebook page?
He suggests that his Facebook page is better than alerting the media because “There is no subscription cost or fee to get” information. Every taxpayer in Citrus County pays for the Sheriff’s Facebook page. And there’s a big difference… you don’t have a choice about whether to subscribe. The sheriff, through the power of taxation, is given your money without ever having to ask your permission. Once he has the money, he can spend it however he wants.
Is government social media biased?
Of course they are. All. All. Find me a government that posts information that asks itself tough questions or admits government wrongdoing on a regular basis and I will eat the next press release I get from the sheriff. This is not necessarily a bad thing. PR people are supposed to put their organizations in a good light. We expect that. But the CCSO is a government agency, not an independent news source. When a government official tells you that you can get all the information you need if you just listen to them, you should probably question that.
Yes, we are a for-profit company, but with a mission to hold public officials accountable.
Consider this. We are the only company named in the United States Constitution. You know, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the liberty of speech, or the press.”
The press they were talking about is us. And every other newspaper, TV and radio station and independent news website in the country. The important word here is independent, not government source. Those Founding Father dudes knew that a free country depends on a free press.
Was the public in any danger after the first arrest?
When deputies arrested the man for shooting the 15-year-old boy in the stomach, he pulled himself together and was home pretty quickly. The sheriff writes “As noted, this incident was isolated with no threat to the public – our greatest concern was the welfare of the victims involved, contacting the parents of the juveniles and securing any potential weapons.”
Shouldn’t the public know all the facts? Sure, there are things an investigator can’t release at the beginning of an investigation, but parents sure want to know if their kids are playing or driving vehicles near the man’s home. But it took days for the sheriff to tell the public what actually happened, and only after they were asked by the newspaper.
And if the man posed no further threat to the public, why did the state attorney’s office seek to return the suspect to prison. The request cited Florida law that allows someone to be held without bond if they have been charged with a “dangerous crime,” there is a strong likelihood that they committed the crime, and their actions reflected a disregard for community safety, and there are no conditions on their release that would still keep society safe. In other words, the state believed he could still be a danger to others even if the sheriff didn’t. In fact, prosecutors on Friday convinced a judge to put the man back in prison. If the sheriff had just informed the public on Saturday night or Sunday morning, many parents who knew the area might have kept their children away. Turns out they had to rely on rumors and Facebook chatter to get their information until we published it in the paper.
But that’s not what we asked
The sheriff cites the incident at Citrus Springs Elementary School where a student was arrested for making a threat against the school. Yes, the paper received media attention and the story was on our website and in the paper. We did not ask the sheriff why he did not notify the public. He did a good job with that. The question we were actually asking was whether the youth was charged with a crime and what the charge was. We still don’t have an answer to that question, and we don’t know why.
Sheriff’s website and arrest reporting
The arrests on the sheriff’s website are not updated. It may take days for the “Recent Arrests” section of his page to be updated. We know because we check every day. And if you hear about an arrest and it happened more than 10 days ago, it’s off the scene. Why? One of the best things about the web is that you can store a million files and take up very little storage space. Why can’t the public have access to that information?
I have a lot of respect for law enforcement. I have worked for a police department and have a family member who made a lifelong career working for a sheriff’s office in Florida. Law enforcement agencies deserve our respect and admiration. I support the blue and the green.
When the sheriff tells you that you can get all the information you need just by reading his Facebook page, you should be concerned.
Our job, as your local newspaper, is to ask tough questions of the people in charge of your government.
Don’t be fooled by name calling and political rhetoric. A free press is different from a state-sponsored Facebook page.
Jim Gouvellis is the managing editor of the Chronicle