Tampa, Florida – 10 News' continuing investigation into police conduct during "To Catch a Predator"-inspired sex stings has revealed law enforcement officers who act as undercover "chatters" routinely delete emails and other records that Florida law requires them to retain.
At least three different law enforcement agencies admitted they could not provide requested emails from various operations because they were not saved. State law requires law enforcement agencies to retain all records generated during investigations to ensure "that information is available when and where it is needed, in an organized and efficient manner, and in an appropriate environment."
The findings raise further questions about how the controversial stings – which target men allegedly looking for children to have sex with online - are operated. 10 Investigates first reported in August how officers were boosting arrest totals by targeting men who were not looking for children:
Part 1: Officers bending the rules on sex stings
Part 2: Stings not arresting whom you think they are
Part 3: ACLU leader calls for federal review of DOJ dollars
Part 4: Air Force participation appears to break federal laws
The investigations drew praise from experts in the legal, civil rights, and law enforcement communities who indicated the stings were wasting valuable resources to arrest men who were ultimately unlikely to commit crimes. In nearly half of Florida's 1200-plus cases in the last decade, the defendants served no jail time.
When Tampa Bay-area law enforcement agencies refused to turn over any documents from recent stings, claiming all investigations were still "active," exempting the records from public view, WTSP-TV and attorneys from its parent corporation, Gannett, requested any communication from the operations between detectives and men who showed no interest in meeting up with underage teens.
However, many agencies still wouldn't turn documents over because they claimed the potential targets who ignored the advances and did the right thing - believed to be in the hundreds – were still "under investigation."
Three agencies told 10 Investigates the emails between detectives and potential targets who did the right thing were deleted.
One detective from the St. Petersburg Police Department (SPPD) participated in January's "Operation Home Alone" sting, which netted 35 arrests. But an agency spokesperson said Detective Chris McClure "does not maintain copies of the type of correspondence (10 Investigates was) requesting, specifically between himself and those individuals who were either were not charged or don't have charges pending…not just in the case of Operation Home Alone, but for any other similar type of investigation he conducts."
Following "Operation Safe Summer," conducted by the Lee County Sheriff's Office this past May and June, 10 Investigates requested emails detectives sent to men who posted legal ads on legal dating sites, but ultimately showed no interest in meeting up with teens. An agency spokesperson told 10 Investigates, "detectives delete any items immediately that are not a part of the investigation. They do this in an effort to eliminate any privacy concerns against someone who is not a suspect or involved in the investigation as they do not want to harm an innocent party."
When 10 Investigates pointed out detectives were using email accounts hosted by Gmail, which typically auto-archives all emails, Lee County Lt. Jeffery M. Dektas wrote, "We have no additional information concerning this matter. This remains an ongoing investigation and as you know we don't release information on active investigations. We do not retain emails or names of citizens that do not commit crimes during our investigations, that actually makes no sense."
Several public records experts and advocates told 10 Investigates that the failures to maintain documents appear to violate state law.
"If law enforcement agents are intentionally deleting - destroying - email records relating to criminal investigations before the retention schedules allow for the destruction, then those agents themselves have committed a crime," said Barbara Petersen with Florida's First Amendment Foundation. "An intentional violation of the public records law - including the destruction of public record emails - is a first degree misdemeanor.
"The records that are created by police and other governmental agencies are supposed to be preserved," said retired Army Col. Mike Pheneger, now chair of the ACLU's Greater Tampa Bay chapter. "It's generally understood that these emails are public records…and if they're not retained, you have to question why."
Recent depositions suggests the failure to maintain records during the stings is a cultural problem among investigators involved in the Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) task forces.
A detective who was exchanging emails with men during a recent Manatee County sting admitted the "majority" ceased communication when it was revealed the female in his fictitious social media profile wasn't really 31 years old, but an underage teen. But the detective added that he – and other detectives – didn't save those communications because it would be "way too time-consuming."
And an investigator who has worked on numerous stings around the Central Florida said he had to send lots of messages to men who posted legal ads before he found a willing "target":
"Usually they'll send (a negative) response early on, 'I'm going to call the cops,'" the agent said in deposition. "Most don't even reply back."
The head of Central Florida's ICAC task force, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, told 10 Investigates during an August press conference that the majority of men investigated did the right thing. He could not, however, say how many.
When 10 Investigates requested the emails between detectives and law-abiding men, only 8 exchanges were provided from a summer sting that netted more than a dozen arrests. The indication was that all other exchanges either resulted in arrests, currently-open investigations, or were not saved.
The failures to maintain and provide records from the stings only raises more questions about how often detectives would break the rules – and how far they would go - to create 'reasonable cause' against a target.
10 Investigates will continue to push for public records.