Beneath a graying sky that foreshadowed the hurricane to come, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd shrugged.
“Never before did I think that we’d be beat up for giving people a warning and keeping people safe,” he told local television crews. “But hey, that’s okay.”
He was referring to criticism that followed a string of tweets from his office Wednesday morning saying that anyone with an outstanding warrant would not be admitted to shelters during Hurricane Irma. Though some of the tweets singled out sexual offenders and predators, others said all people with warrants would be better off turning themselves into a secure space of a different kind — jail.
“If you go to a shelter for #Irma, be advised: sworn LEOs will be at every shelter, checking IDs. Sex offenders/predators will not be allowed,” read one tweet, using an acronym for “law enforcement officers.” The thread came from the Polk County Sheriff’s Twitter account, which uses a photo of Judd.
“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,” read another tweet, which received more than 7,800 likes. It had also garnered more than 7,800 replies by early Thursday morning, largely from users chastising Judd for potentially endangering people with warrants as a Category 5 hurricane ripped through the Caribbean and beamed toward Florida.
On Tuesday evening, President Trump declared emergencies in Florida, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
Video footage from television channel FOX 13 showed Judd surprised that the policy had drawn national criticism. He said his office had given offenders “four or five days warning” to make other arrangements if they didn’t want to turn themselves in.
“If you’re a sexual predator and a sexual offender, we’re not going to let you sleep next to any 5- or 6- or 7-year-old babies, period,” Judd said.
Just a few hours after Judd’s thread, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida posted its response on Twitter. “Most people with outstanding warrants are dealing with low-level and nonviolent offenses,” the statement read, posing no risk to people seeking refuge in emergency shelters. The statement said Judd was “exploiting a natural disaster and exploiting lives” and that he should not burnish “his Joe Arpaio-style ‘tough cop’ credentials with a series of irresponsible tweets.”
It noted that many warrants involved only unpaid parking tickets.
Arpaio, a former Arizona sheriff, was pardoned by Trump last month after being convicted of criminal contempt of court for ignoring a judge’s order to stop detaining people because he suspected them of being undocumented immigrants.
“Sheriff Judd’s threatening tweets send the message that these individuals must choose between facing a natural disaster without aid and shelter or going to jail over things like unpaid traffic tickets,” the ACLU statement said.
According to the FOX 13 footage, Judd said those with minor outstanding warrants had the choice to “go to book in, take care of it, get out, and then you can come to the shelter.” Or they could choose not to turn themselves in and avoid the shelters altogether.
Judd was elected sheriff in Polk County in 2004, having started in the office in 1972 as a dispatcher. The headline of a 2011 Tampa Bay Times article claimed Judd made “his name on moral outrage,” having devoted much of his career to ridding the county of what he called “smut and dirt,” be it strip clubs, adult video stores or escort services.
Carrie Horstman, a public information officer for the sheriff’s office, was quoted in the Tampa Bay Times saying that the agency could not allow sexual predators to shelter with children and families. The article said Horstman authored the tweets on behalf of the sheriff’s office. Polk County has an estimated population of more than 660,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“We see that people [on Twitter] are upset, but the bottom line is the shelters are here to protect people and we want people to be safe,” Horstman told the newspaper. “If you have a warrant, turn yourself into the jail and if you are a predator, find somewhere to go.”
It was only weeks ago that another hurricane — this one bound for Texas — stoked fears about who would be allowed into emergency shelters. As Hurricane Harvey made its way through the Gulf of Mexico, federal authorities and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, said undocumented immigrants should not fear going to shelters.
And in a joint statement, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Customs and Border Protection said they would focus on “lifesaving and life-sustaining activities” rather than target undocumented immigrants at evacuation sites.
Horstman said undocumented immigrants would not be affected by the policy, according to the Orlando Sentinel. She added that the rule will also help the county keep a log of who visits the shelters during the hurricane.
The Sentinel quoted state Rep. Carlos Smith saying checking IDs of storm evacuees unfairly impacts undocumented immigrants.
“The message has already been received by the 18,000 undocumented persons in Polk County,” Smith, a Democrat, told the Sentinel. “This is not the message we need to be sending out with a disaster upon us.”
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