While the rest of the world watched on in horror, Hurricane Irma swept through the Caribbean, leveling entire islands as she made her way toward the United States. As many in the state of Florida prepared to evacuate and find safety and shelter, some residents there may have a storm of a different type to worry about, in the form of one county sheriff’s office that has warned people with warrants not to show up at emergency shelters.
On Wednesday morning, the Polk County Sheriff’s Office in Winter Haven, Fla., tweeted from its official account: “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.”
That tweet was followed by another one a minute later that said, “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.”
Keep in mind that warrants are sometimes issued for things such as unpaid tickets or a failure to appear in court on a traffic citation. The message the sheriff’s office was delivering was clear: Risk death if you don’t want to go to jail.
How’s that for the American way?
At a time when a public safety official should be concerned with making sure all citizens are safe, the Polk County Sheriff’s Office was using the hurricane as a way to conduct arrest sweeps. Because really, why are you checking IDs and doing warrant checks at an emergency shelter for hurricane victims?
As people began voicing their concerns about the message on Twitter, the sheriff’s office doubled down with another tweet that said, “If you have a warrant, turn yourself in to the jail - it’s a secure shelter.”
The office then attempted to save face by circling back to protecting children from sexual offenders and predators.
Remember that not all people registered as sexual offenders actually sexually assaulted someone. A teenager who sent a sexy text to another teenager can also be considered a sexual offender if charged and convicted.
The Daily Beast reports that it reached out to the sheriff’s office for answers about the tweet and Carrie Horstman, a spokesperson for the office, told the site that anyone who has a warrant and is likely to be jailed could choose not to seek shelter during the Category 5 storm. She also said that if a person made the choice not to seek shelter in order to avoid being taken to jail, the fault would not lie with law-enforcement authorities.
“I don’t know at this point what the storm will do,” Horstman told the Daily Beast. “We are trying to give people a heads-up as many days in advance as possible to prepare [for] this storm.”
Horstman explained to the Daily Beast that checking IDs at shelters was a policy put in place to prevent sex offenders from getting close to children.
“While we are checking, if we see someone with an active warrant, we have to place them under arrest,” Horstman said.
When the Daily Beast pointed out that this policy and the statements made via Twitter may discourage people from going to shelters in order to avoid being arrested, Horstman didn’t think that was a big deal.
“That is a risk a person would run,” she said. “I think it is much safer to be in our jail than to expose yourself to a Category 5 storm. You are using the phrase, ‘people who are scared to go to jail.’ If you have a warrant, legally you should be in jail. You should turn yourself in and be safe in our jail rather than risk your life waiting out a storm.”
Well, all righty, then.
Stay safe out there.