LAKELAND – The Polk County Sheriff’s Office says it sent undercover deputies to a minority rights group’s meeting because it had received information that the group was planning unlawful activities at a rally outside of a local jail.
Sheriff’s spokesman Scott Wilder said Friday that deputies had also heard that hundreds of people were planning to attend the 2012 jail demonstration.
“It would have been irresponsible for us not to have attended a public meeting where the planning was going to be occurring,” Wilder said. “As it turns out, it was perfectly benign.”
Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd sent the deputies to a July 2012 meeting of the Poor and Minority Justice Association, which was held at a local church and open to the public. News of the spying was revealed this week when the group’s leader gave an undercover deputy’s email to the news media.
Members of the group say they weren’t planning any illegal activities or violence.
Pastor Clayton Cowart, who heads the justice group and the church where the meeting was held, said he feels his group’s constitutional rights were violated. He’s met with lawyers and is considering taking legal action.
Wilder said that undercover deputies had not attended any of the group’s meetings before July 2012 and haven’t attended any since.
“They have a perfect right to peacefully meet,” he said, adding that on the day of the uneventful rally at the jail, sheriff’s officials invited some of the group in to tour part of the facility.
The incident involving the Poor and Minority Justice Association is one of a string of events that Polk County civil rights leaders say is troubling to members of the community.
“We just had the March on Washington and we’re dealing with some of the same issues that we were 50 years ago,” said Faye Bellamy, a member of the NAACP and local concerned citizens groups.
“I am concerned about black kids and black adults being treated fairly by law enforcement.”
In May 2012, the Southern Poverty Law Center sued Judd’s agency on behalf of the parents of seven teens who claimed they suffered as a result of being subject to an “adult correctional model” in the Polk County Jail.
The teens were housed in the same building as the adult jail rather than being housed in a separate juvenile facility staffed by professionals who are experts in working with troubled children, the law center said in court filings.
Judd has defended his treatment of juveniles in court records. The lawsuit is still pending in federal court.
It was that lawsuit, and teens’ conditions at the jail, that sparked the Poor and Minority Justice Association to hold the spied upon meeting on July 27, 2012, at Cowart’s church.
An email provided to The Associated Press by Cowart was written by the undercover deputies at the meeting.
It said various groups were planning on protesting at a Polk County Jail.